Skip the gym this season: Why exercising in cold weather is so beneficial for your health
Accuweather's Dexter Henry asks the experts about what brown fat is and why it helps when winter rolls around.
The shift to colder, winter weather often makes us feel lethargic and deters our motivation to go outside.
But before you pull over the blankets or curl up by the fire to watch your favorite show, you should consider the potential benefits of cold-weather workouts.
Aside from helping to ease fears of potential winter weight gain, exercising outdoors in colder weather has numerous health benefits. The average winter weight gain ranges from 5-10 pounds, Senior Director of Clinical Nutrition at Mt. Sinai Rebecca Blake told AccuWeather.
New York City native Alec Barab gets in a morning run in the snow on 12th Ave. in Denver's historic district on Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
While many avoid the cold, outdoor winter workouts are a great way to take in small doses of sunlight. The sunlight can help to improve mood and help with vitamin D intake, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Winter exercise boosts immunity during cold and flu season. A few minutes a day can help prevent simple bacterial and viral infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Shivering, a mechanism to produce heat, also burns a significant amount of calories. Studies have shown that people expend five times more energy when shivering, compared to when they are resting.
Regardless of exercise, studies have shown that being outside in cold weather can transform white fat, specifically belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning beige or brown fat.
Brown fat's purpose is to burn calories to generate heat. Brown fat is often referred to as the "good" fat because it helps to burn rather than store calories. It is typically found in areas around the neck and kidneys.
AccuWeather National Weather Reporter Dexter Henry recently sat down with Nataliya Galifianakis, a clinical assistant professor of biology at New York University to learn more about how brown fat is beneficial during the winter.
"Brown fat can actually create heat," Galifianakis told Henry. "Brown fat cells instead of using calories to make energy, it uses calories to produce heat."
One of the signals for the activation of brown fat is exercise, Galifianakis said.
In addition to making new brown fats because a human body exercises, the generation of brown fat is also increased because someone is exercising in the cold weather, she explained.
"Brown fat could be activated by cold," Galifianakis said. "Chronic cold exposure activates your brown fat cells."
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, showed people have more genetic markers for brown fat in the winter than during the warmer months. This could signal slightly more calorie burn in the winter as the body insulates itself.
“Browning fat tissue would be an excellent defense against obesity. It would result in the body burning extra calories rather than converting them into additional fat tissue,” study author Dr. Philip A. Kern said in a release.
People run in the snow across the Williamsburg bridge, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
While the cold weather may deter some from outdoor physical activity, working out in the cold has several advantages over warmer weather workouts.
There is no heat and humidity to deal with in colder weather. Winter’s chill might even make you feel awake and invigorated, according to the AHA.
In the cold, your body can regulate its temperature a little better. This means you can often exercise farther or longer; therefore, you can potentially burn even more calories, according to AHA.
Exercising in extreme temperatures, hot or cold, has shown the ability to enhance endurance and mental edge. However, it is important to be aware of the potential risks and proper safety precautions before venturing out.
The Mayo Clinic provides numerous tips for staying safe during your cold-weather exercise:
Preparations for cold versus warm workouts differ. Both require proper nutrition and hydration. However, in warmer weather, your body will "climatize," or adapt to the heat, whereas your body does not do that for the cold, according to Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, medical director at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center.
The body will constrict blood vessels more vigorously and earlier as well as start to shiver earlier in cold weather. Layers of clothing are especially important in preparation for cold-weather exercise, differing from warm weather.
"You can take off a layer if you start to sweat and get too hot and put them back on if you get too cold. You can't really take off enough clothes in the heat when at risk for heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke," Finnoff said.
Depending on how cold it is and how exposed one’s skin is, hypothermia can become a concern, according to Penn State Professor of Kinesiology Dr. David Conroy.
"Regardless of the temperature, there is a danger from sun exposure. Outdoor physical activity increases skin cancer risk, so it is important to protect your skin at all temperatures," Conroy said.
Those that suffer with asthma should also be aware of the risks of colder weather. Cold, dry air can hurt the lungs and may trigger an asthma attack, according to Finoff.
Those with medical conditions should check with their doctor to review any special precautions based on their condition or their medications.
Exercising outdoors is almost always a good idea as long as you make the adequate preparations for extreme temperatures, Finnoff said.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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