School of Education News

Experts stress that hibernating the winter away is not wise

January 09, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

Oh the weather outside is frightful …

But plopping down in front of the fire all winter long isn’t wise. In fact, stress several experts with UW-Madison’s Department of Kinesiology, it’s imperative for one’s physical and emotional well-being that you don’t hibernate the winter away.

Cross Country Skiing"Although the obstacles to staying active are often higher during the cold winter months than the rest of the year, research shows the importance of avoiding periods of inactivity if you don't want to lose what you have worked so hard to gain throughout the rest of the year,” says Gary Diffee, a professor with the Department of Kinesiology. “Studies show that recently acquired fitness gains are completely lost after training stoppage periods of a few weeks. Some of the metabolic changes in muscle that happen as a result of regular exercise can be lost within as few as 10 days of the cessation of this activity."

And from a mental health aspect, the combination of fewer daylight hours and the tendency of people to head outdoors less often can also spell potential trouble.

“With the shorter days and people becoming less active, there is a greater risk of suffering from depressed moods or some disturbance in one’s mood, including seasonal affective disorder -– which is a subcategory of major depressive disorder,” says Associate Professor Dane Cook. “So by decreasing your activity in the winter, you increase your risk for these types of things.”

To be clear, there are some precautions one should take when being active outside and the temperature dips below freezing. But unless conditions are especially icy or the cold-snap is extreme, UW-Madison’s Andy Winterstein says most people should be able to enjoy the great outdoors during the winter months.

Winterstein, the director of the Department of Kinesiology’s Athletic Training Program, says that to stay comfortable while exercising outdoors in the winter months one should dress in layers and make every effort to stay dry. In particular, he notes it’s important to wear a base layer that will wick, or move, sweat away from the skin. Similarly, avoid fabrics close to the skin that absorb moisture, such as cotton. Add middle layers, as needed, to provide warmth, and outer layers to protect from the wind.

SleddingOnce you get started with physical activity outdoors, Winterstein says it’s wise to ease into things by warming up slowly, because colder tissue has proven to be more susceptible to injury. It’s also important to keep adequately hydrated because fatigue and dehydration can increase one’s susceptibility to hypothermia.

Winterstein adds that cross country skiers, snowshoe enthusiasts and hikers need to be extra careful not to overexert themselves if they are off the beaten path, and he suggests training with a partner in the winter months outdoors because a simple orthopedic injury could turn into a dangerous situation if one is exposed to the elements too long.

If one deplores the cold, there is nothing wrong with staying active indoors – whether it be working out at the local gym, walking at the mall or using your favorite exercise DVD, among other options.  The most important thing is to remain active in any way.

That said, Ron Carda and Tim Gattenby are both big proponents of embracing the unique outdoor opportunities that winter presents.

“Not everyone is an ice fisherman, but winter presents a golden opportunity to do things you can’t do in the summer,” says Carda, a faculty associate with the Department of Kinesiology. “I always tell people, rather than fight the cold and snow, find a way to embrace it. There are opportunities that snow provides – whether it be snowshoeing or skiing or any range of activities that allow one to have fun and stay active.”

Notes Gattenby, a faculty associate who coordinates the Department of Kinesiology’s Adaptive Fitness and Personal Training Program: “Winter gets us to think about all the other ways to train, and we are well served by cross-training because it gives muscles and joints a chance to work differently.  And these different training modes help to keep us healthier and less over-trained and less likely to get injured.”

Gattenby adds: “I once had a triathlon coach ask me how is it that you folks up in Wisconsin turn out such good endurance athletes? How is it that you can keep up with athletes from Florida and California where we train outdoors year-round? My response was that not only do we beat up on those from the sunny states quite regularly, but we do so because we cross-train and change up our routines.”

Speaking of changing up one’s exercise routine, following are just five ideas for staying active during the winter months:

1. Cross country skiing –- “Cross country skiing is one of the best full-body cardiovascular and muscular endurance stimulating exercises in the universe,” says Gattenby.

2. Snowshoeing –- Although snowshoeing has been around for thousands of years, modern day snowshoeing is made up of casual snowshoers who hike in the woods for fun to competitive snowshoers who race.

3. Get outside and play –- Follow the lead of your kids. Bundle up and build a snowman or spend time sledding or just head out for an exploring walk. Remember: Playing outside can be fun at any age.

Walking the dog4. Running -- Unless it’s icy, Gattenby says he loves running in the winter. “On an early winter run in the dark the world is mine,” he says. “In fact, after a winter of running and all the solitude I am amazed come spring as to where did all the people come from who take up the cause again as the temperatures climb. What were all these people doing in the winter?” In an effort to avoid the wind on cold days, Carda suggests exercising in areas where there are a good deal of trees or homes to cut the wind. He adds that if it is windy, start by running into the wind – so you can finish with it to your back.

5. Walking -- If you’re new to outdoor activity in the winter, start by going for a walk. Bundle up and take a stroll with the dog or hike through the snow at a local park for a good cardio workout. And if you simply despise the outdoors during the winter months and don’t want to join a gym, head to a local mall for a walk.

The bottom line? Find ways to stay active.

“People tend not to realize that they should be more active until it’s too late,” says Cook. “So get the message out that it’s important to avoid that big dip in activity during a Wisconsin winter –- which can last six months.”

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