There’s a growing amount of evidence that shows exercising in cold temperatures can burn more calories, making your workouts more effective.
The colder it gets, the easier it is to hibernate under mounds of blankets, binge-watch thousands of hours of streaming movies, and declare yourself a sovereign citizen of your couch until winter chills out for a second.
But it’s also not a bad time to start working out outdoors — extreme weather events aside — because you could score a few cheater calories.
Whether your New Year’s resolution is to lose 10 pounds or crush an Ironman, many health experts say the cold months aren’t an excuse to stay inside — it’s time to get moving.
As many health experts will tell you, almost all forms of movement are healthy. Unless, of course, it’s shoveling leftover holiday cookies into your face or curling tallboys. They know you can do better.
And, if you move outside for long enough and have a healthier breakfast, you might get to your health goals quicker.
There’s credible evidence to suggest that cold weather sparks some leftover evolutionary trait — as in from before we invented houses — that helps the body burn through calories in a more efficient way.
In loose terms, it engages the good type of fat that humans heavily consumed in our hunter-gatherer days when we endured the cold for longer periods of time. And apparently it can be thrown off easily.
It all stems around “brown fat,” the healthy kind that’s useful for insulating our most vulnerable bits.
In only mildly cold weather, it can burn a few hundred calories on its own, provided the person is cold enough for an extended period of time.
Thanks to insulated clothing and central heating, however, most people’s brown fat doesn’t get activated enough to make a difference.
Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, a researcher at the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in brown fat research, explains it as a temporary trait that can be undone with half a muffin.
“When you activate brown fat, it may stay active for a few hours,” he recently told NPR. “Not permanently.”
So that means you shouldn’t count on brown fat to do the work for you, but a few exercise aficionados recommend you invest in some durable running shoes.
Meg Takacs, a master trainer with Aaptiv, a subscription audio-based fitness program, recommends running as a cold weather exercise because your heart rate tends to be lower, as opposed to exercising in the warmest months.
“Running with a lower heart rate will also make you feel less exhausted,” Takacs told Healthline, “so distance running can actually feel easier in the cold weather.”
In warmer and more humid months, Takacs says your body is trying to constantly cool itself down, forcing your heart to work harder.
In the cold, however, the opposite is true.
“Overall, I think cold weather running does wonders for performance and can actually be safer than running in the heat,” Takacs said.
Seasoned winter experts agree.
Mike Vaught, director of personal training at Snap Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn., who has been involved in the fitness industry and personal training for more than 15 years, says because you can burn more calories and increase your endurance in the cold weather, any kind of exercise in the winter is good.
That includes going for a walk, a jog — especially with a dog — and winter sports like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, he said.
“If you live in areas with snow, put away the snowblower and grab a shovel,” Vaught told Healthline. “Also, if you have kiddos, try dragging them on a sled as you go for a walk.”
For most people, the most accessible form of outdoor cold weather exercise is simply putting on some running shoes and other appropriate gear and stepping out the front door to go for a walk — and eventually a run — in your neighborhood.
The big issue with any kind of exercise is safety. You don’t want to put in hours of hard work making progress only to get set back by an avoidable injury, or even a bad experience that would make you never want to return again.
Andy Petranek, a former Red Bull–sponsored adventure racer and co-founder of Whole Life Challenge, said he’s sure there’s probably a temperature at which it’s too cold to work out, but he hasn’t found it yet.
He says going out to exercise in the winter depends on a mix of experience, how well you’re acclimated to the cold, and, most importantly, the quality of the clothing and layers you use to protect yourself.
“First of all, it’s important to know that when you head out into the cold to work out or go for a run, you should feel cold,” Petranek told Healthline. “You don’t want to bundle up and feel nice and toasty warm before you start. That is the recipe for being way too overheated within five minutes of starting.”
The key is layers, Petranek said. The base layer should cover your skin, and, if needed, the next layer should protect you from the elements.
“This could include a second pair of tights that have insulation for the bottoms, and for the top something as simple as a windproof shell,” Petranek said.
If you need more insulation, a lightweight, insulated parka or vest will do.
Temperature and comfort vary from person to person, but there are some universal truths.
Experts warn that people with breathing or cardiac issues may want to consult a doctor before kick-starting any hardcore outdoor exercise in cold, warm, or temperate months.
Even for those seasoned athletes, if the National Weather Service has issued a cold weather warning, it’s too cold to exercise outside.
Angie Fifer, PhD, CMPC and executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, said it’s important to be mindful of the temperature.
“Also take into account the wind and the ‘feels like’ temperature, which can be much lower than the actual temperature,” Fifter told Healthline. “Use good overall judgement, and, when in doubt, take your workout inside for that day.”
That’s because it’s likely you’ll be back outside soon.
Like any form of outdoor exercise, Mother Nature always sets the rules. That means the colder it gets, the more likely things can frost or freeze over and become treacherous.
For some, it’s only one more challenge.
Nita Sweeney has chronic depression, so it’s especially difficult for her to get out of bed in winter. She admits she has bad days, even with medication and therapy, but she says running transformed her relationship with winter.
“Showing up for a cold run not only boosts my self-esteem, but that post-run high helps my mood all day,” she told Healthline. “It’s just a better day when I go for a run.”
Sweeney, author of the memoir “Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink,” said runners have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
Now 57, she’s the first to admit she’ll head for an indoor track if it’s too icy, but her running friends wear traction cleats.
Weather permitting, Sweeney will put on two pairs of long johns under her tights, a “sparkle skirt” to shield her from the wind, a few long-sleeved breathable shirts under a warm hooded jacket, a balaclava over her mouth and head, a pair of sports socks with some bamboo knee-highs, and a hand warmer in each mitten and she’s good to go.
“I love it when the sweat freezes into icicles on my eyebrows,” Sweeney said.