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How to stay active, safe and motivated to exercise this winter

Woman stretching

When temperatures dip and the days grow shorter, the motivation to move your body might run cold as well. But exercise is important for you and your family all year long. Being active through exercise helps keep your immune system strong, reducing your risk of getting colds, flu or other common winter illnesses. Exercise also causes your body to release mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins, which may reduce your risk of developing a type of depression often tied to fall and winter weather called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Kids need daily activity, too, to keep their bodies on track.

Still, you should be mindful of what the cold air does to your body, especially your lungs. Here are some tips about exercising during the colder months.

Is it good for you to work out in the cold?

Exercising in the winter offers some health benefits.

  • Cold weather can improve endurance. In chillier temperatures, your heart doesn’t work as hard, you sweat less and use less energy, which causes you to exercise more effectively.

  • Studies have shown that exercising in cold weather modifies white fat, such as belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning brown fat.

  • Winter workouts can help bolster your immune system. Exercise might help flush out bacteria from your airways. 

  • Both exercise and exposure to direct natural light can improve your mood


What does cold air do to the lungs?

Laneshia K. Tague, MD, a Washington University pulmonologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, says cold air constricts the airways and blood vessels in the lungs, making it more difficult for air to enter and exit the lungs.

  • Cold air also decreases blood flow and, because it’s an irritant, can cause increased inflammation and bronchospasm, which is when the muscles around the airways tighten. If air cannot properly circulate through narrowed airways, it can lead to shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and sometimes burning in the chest, wheezing or coughing. 

  • The cold increases mucus-producing cells in the lining of the lungs. That mucus can block the airway and make breathing harder. That’s why it’s important to stay hydrated in the winter. Drinking water will help thin out mucus, and help clear it away faster if you’re sick.

  • There are cells in the lungs that have cilia, or little “fingers,” that help sweep things such as viruses, bacteria or irritants out of the lungs. The cold air decreases the activity of those cells.


How does exercising outside affect breathing?

Tague says that your breathing will be harder when you exercise outside, and if the air is cold enough, your breathing can feel painful.

  • Breathing through your nose helps warm and humidify air before it reaches your lungs, but as you breathe harder, you begin to breathe through your mouth, which doesn’t give the air enough time to warm. 

  • Because cold air is usually dry air, it can be an irritant for people who have any kind of lung disease like asthma. Wearing a face covering can help warm up the air you breathe.


Three more tips for exercising outside in the winter:

1. If you use a rescue inhaler, make sure you always keep it with you. 

Tague says patients with any kind of lung disease should always have their rescue inhaler on them because the cold air can be triggering regardless of whether they’re exercising. People with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), especially, should keep their inhalers on them.

“It's harder to breathe for someone with lung disease. Make sure that you are listening to your body, are prepared to wear a face covering when it is cold to help warm that air up, be conscious of your breathing, and have any inhalers you normally need,” Tague says.

2. Check the air quality, even in the wintertime. 

“People don’t think about checking the air quality in the wintertime,” Tague says. “In the spring and summer, people look at pollen levels, but air quality can be low in winter, too.” 

If the air quality is low, consider wearing a tight-fitting face mask while exercising outdoors.

3. Know when to take a break and stop exercising.

Knowing when to stop exercising depends on the person. If you are someone who exercises outside regularly, you might have more endurance built up and can tolerate the cold. Keep tabs on how you’re feeling.

Learn more:Watch Tague’s segment on The Science of Blues Hockey.


More safety tips for exercising outdoors in the cold:

  • Check weather conditions and wind chill before you exercise outside. Remember that children can’t regulate their body temperature as well as adults. If it’s below -15 degrees windchill, kids shouldn’t be outside, even for short periods.

  • Protect your head, hands, feet and ears. Wear gloves or mittens, a hat or headband and warm socks.

  • Dress children in loose layers, which can be removed more easily if they get wet. A good rule of thumb is to dress children in one more layer than adults.

  • Don't forget safety gear. If it's dark when you exercise outside, wear reflective clothing.

  • Wear a helmet while skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.

  • It's just as easy to get sunburned in the winter as it is in the summer. Wear a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays and a lip balm with sunscreen.


These tips can help you safely — and enjoyably — exercise when temperatures drop. But be sure to closely monitor how your body feels during cold-weather exercise to help prevent injuries.

Learn more: Playing with your kids outside this winter? Read more about how to keep them safe and warm.


Feeling empowered to exercise this winter but having trouble sticking to a schedule? 

Meeting your fitness and health goals can be difficult in the best weather, much less a St. Louis winter. But don’t let that discourage you. Try these tips to help you stay on track with your fitness goals.

1. Write down your plan — and be sure to include:

  • Your detailed long-term goal, ideally with a timeline and measurable attributes.

  • Who will be your support system while you work toward this long-term goal.

  • Why you chose this goal in the first place and what it will help you to accomplish. (Remember that modeling healthy behavior for the kids around you can be a great goal.)

  • What steps you’re going to take to reach your goals.

  • How you plan to adjust when you run into a roadblock or obstacle.

 2. Create short-term goals

Once you’ve finished the first step of writing out your plan, come up with some short-term goals that support your long-term goal and can help keep you motivated and on track. These smaller goals will ultimately help you reach your long-term goal.

  • Create a back-up workout plan in case of inclement weather. Online, you can find virtual workouts for any goal, experience level, space or equipment you may have.

  • If you get off track one day, don’t let it derail you. Allow yourself some grace and get back on track the next day.

  • Take rest and recovery days seriously. They allow your body to repair and recover.

  • Slowly progress in your exercise routine. If you push your body harder than it can recover from, you may set yourself back.

  • When you or your family meet one of your short-term goals, be sure to acknowledge it and be proud.

 3. Find an accountability partner

Whether it’s a friend, family member, co-worker or fitness professional, find someone who supports you in your efforts and can work with you to keep you on track. It also helps us to be more accountable for our goals if someone else knows about them.

One of the best ways to stay accountable is to work out with a friend. When one of you lacks the energy to work out, the other is there to motivate and get you both to — and through — the workout.

Kids can be great motivators, too. Set some exercise goals as a family, and cheer each other on as you work toward them. 

4. Find ways to stay motivated

Motivation can be difficult. Whether you haven’t been sleeping well, work has gotten busy or stressful or life doesn’t go according to plan, fitness goals can easily get pushed to the back burner.

  • Take steps to motivate yourself by being aware of your progress and taking note of the accomplishments that will lead you to your goals.

  • Track and check off all progress.

  • Celebrate the small accomplishments.

Although it may be tempting to hibernate during the colder months, that doesn’t mean you have to let your fitness levels drop. In fact, with a few of these adjustments to your routine, you can stay active and healthy all winter long.

Find more healthy New Year’s resolutions at BJC.org.

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