When the mercury drops, most gyms start to feel a bit more cramped. And then come New Year’s resolutions. This winter, if you can’t get into your favorite Pilates class, or you find yourself wasting time waiting for your favorite machine, we have some good news: There are several reasons to take your workout outdoors—cold temps and all.
It might change your fat composition
Spending time in the cold may activate brown fat, which is the kind that burns energy, unlike the more familiar white fat, which stores energy. Brown fat is often referred to as “good fat”; it breaks down the sugar and fat(opens in new window) in food we eat to create heat and maintain body temperature in the cold. (Trivia alert: Brown fat was thought for years to exist mostly only in babies, who don’t have the muscles to shiver themselves warm.) It’s also possible the cold could cause you to grow new brown fat cells, according to a 2018 study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. In case that’s not already clear, this is a good thing!
You can burn more calories
Wearing extra clothes in the cold weather does add a bit to your calorie burn, but it’s so minimal it will barely earn you a celery stick, let alone a post-workout mug of hot chocolate, says John Castellani, a US Army research physiologist who was the lead author on the army’s medical doctrine on cold weather operations. So what does the extra burn really come from?
When you’re caught up in your outdoor environment, you may be less focused on how tired you are or how much your muscles ache, says John Porcari, a professor of exercise science at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. So you may exercise longer and harder. It also helps that it’s harder to quit a workout when you’re outside. If you’ve run 20 minutes from your house and you want to give up, you can’t just hit the stop button and get off the treadmill.
Some other ways you may burn additional calories: changes in terrain. “Running outdoors burns more calories because the treadmill helps propel you along to a certain extent,” says Porcari. If you’re walking or running, the less steady footing forces the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs to work harder than they would on a flat course. One more calorie burner: Wind resistance, says Porcari.
You may get a mood boost (which might help make exercise a habit)
The benefits go beyond physical. A 2011 review found that exercising outside appears to promote both physical and mental well-being. Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. The exercisers also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with the outdoor activity — and said they were more likely to repeat it, but the researchers note that more research is needed to confirm this effect.
You’ll save money
A 2018 survey from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association found that health clubs charge a median of $61 in monthly membership dues and $74 in enrollment and initiation fees. That’s not so bad if you go five days a week. But two Berkeley economists wrote — in a widely cited 2006 paper — that people overestimate how much they’ll go to the gym by more than double, meaning you are (as the title of the paper put it) “Paying Not to Go to the Gym.” Running (or walking or cycling or choose-your-exercise-here) out your front door also saves you cash on gas. All the more to spend on snazzy new workout gear!
Winter workouts can be fun, invigorating, and effective, just keep safety in mind. Wear bright colors and reflective materials, and choose safe areas away from traffic when possible. Use the buddy system, and don’t be afraid to call it quits when visibility is poor or conditions feel dangerous. And as always, talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness routine.
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