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Don’t let cold temps keep you from walking off weight this winter. Take steps (pun totally intended) to ensure you can stick with your usual exercise routine all winter—now is not the time to switch everything up. If you’ve gotten used to walking outdoors all summer, switching to a different activity for cold weather in the winter can make your weight loss more of a struggle, says John Jakicic, Ph.D., director of the Healthy Lifestyle Institute and the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s because finding a new activity may mean organizing your day differently or doing something that you’re not as comfortable with—all during an already chaotic and stressful time.
Walking in the winter can be especially good for your health. For starters, a study in the American Journal of Human Biology found that people burn 34% more calories when they hike in cold weather than they do in more mild conditions. Think about it: trudging through snow or walking into the wind takes more energy.
Plus, a winter stroll offers a refreshing change of pace, says Alan Mikesky, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. The invigorating cold air can clear your mind and reduce stress, which can be helpful for weight loss. No matter what weather you’re facing, this guide should help you stay on your feet all through the winter months. It may be hard, but we promise it will be worth it: You’ll look fantastic come spring, you’ll feel great mentally, your bones will stay strong, and your walking muscles won’t be screaming when you head out for your first warm-weather jaunt.
How to boost weight loss with winter walks
Walking really can help you stay fit—but you have to keep a few things in mind.
Remember that it takes time and effort.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise every week. However, it’s all relative when you’re trying to lose weight—you need to burn more calories than you take in. To give you an idea, a 150-pound person walking 4 miles per hour (15 minutes per mile) will burn 324 calories in an hour. Without timing yourself, use the “sing-talk test” to figure out if you’re stepping at a nice moderate pace: “A person should walk at a pace fast enough so they are too winded to sing, but not so fast they cannot talk,” says Robert Sallis, M.D., codirector of the sports medicine fellowship at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, CA, and a clinical professor of family medicine at UC Riverside School of Medicine.
Vary your walking speed.
To take your calorie burn to the next level, add fast-paced intervals to that steady, moderate walk. Research shows that including more intense intervals in your workout will help you lose more weight.
“Increasing your cadence for a few minutes at a time and then going back to a normal walk has great benefits,” says Catrine Tudor-Locke, Ph.D., F.A.C.S.M., dean of the College of Health and Human Services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Independent of calorie burn, intensity is know to benefits your cardiorespiratory system, so it’s a good idea to shake things up like that when you can.”
Follow a healthy diet.
Exercising more doesn’t really change what or how much you should be eating. A person can eat more calories in five minutes than can be burned off in an entire day,” Dr. Sallis says. “So if your only goal is to lose weight, you will need to cut back on calories.” Try using a calorie-tracking app to monitor your food intake. Keep in mind that both calorie quantity and quality count. Prioritize fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains and cut back on red meats and processed foods.
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Fall in love with winter walking
Still not convinced that winter walking is for you? Here are five ways to trick yourself into loving the season:
Enjoy a new world: Listen to the icy tree branches tinkling in the wind, or look for animal tracks in fresh snow. Found only during winter, these changes can keep you enthused.
Catch up with a friend: Make a standing date, so every Wednesday morning, for instance, a block of time is dedicated to walk with a buddy, suggests Natalie Dorset, founder of The Laughing Runner coaching in New York City. If you can’t meet in person, commit to call while you step along your route. “Accountability helps keep us committed,” says Dorset.
Have some fun: Strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis—two ways to “walk” on snow that can more than double your calorie burn. With all the return trips uphill, sledding counts too!
Be a listener: “Find a podcast or audio book that you really want to listen to,” advises Dorset, “and only allow yourself to listen to it during your workout.”
Give yourself five: Tell yourself you can quit after 5 minutes. Chances are good that when you’re bundled up and out there, you’ll keep going. (If you still want to quit, go ahead—at least you did something.)
What to wear for winter walking workouts
You’ll be much happier and more energized if you’re able to stay warm and dry. When you step outside, you should feel slightly chilled but not cold. During your workout, you want to feel warm, not hot and sweaty. Follow these steps to feel comfy from start to finish.
Be smart about fabrics. Leave that old college sweatshirt in your closet and treat yourself to something new and fleecy. High-tech synthetic fabrics make a big difference in comfort; they’re worth the investment. Consider putting on multiple layers so that you can take them off or put more on as needed. You may want an inner layer made of synthetic fabric such as CoolMax to wick sweat away so you stay dry; a middle, or insulating, layer (or two) of light-weight fleece fabric such as Polartec to keep you warm; an outer layer of waterproof, breathable fabric such as Gore-Tex to buffer you from the elements and let sweat escape.
Choose the right socks. “Wool socks or winter running socks that are wicking will help keep your feet dry and warm,” says Dorset. Keep thin cotton socks stowed away for the winter.
Change your kicks. “Basically, you’re looking for a shoe that says it’s a trail shoe or winterized,” says Dorset. She says special materials like Gore-Tex, inner and outer layers, and extra traction in the form of good lugs or spikes will make a big difference in keeping your toes toasty and keeping you upright on slippery terrain. “If you can’t spend money on new shoes just for winter, there are cold-weather insoles that will help transform your regular sneakers—they’re often Gore-Tex, felt or wool,” adds Dorset. “I often use my regular sneakers with good socks and a pair of Yaktrax for extra grip on snow and ice.”
Wear a scarf or mask loosely over your nose and mouth to prevent the sting of icy cold air when you inhale. This is especially important if you have asthma or heart problems.
Buy an inexpensive pair of ski or walking poles to help keep your balance if your walking route is particularly treacherous. The poles will also help you burn extra calories because your upper body is getting a workout too.
Don’t forget a hat, gloves, sunglasses, and sunscreen!
Dust off your treadmill
Your best winter weight loss partner may be your treadmill: In a study led by Jakicic, women who had a treadmill in their home lost twice as much weight as those without one. There may be a few reasons why. First, when there’s a snowstorm brewing, temps drop dangerously low, or it’s dark outside, it’s easy to hop on a treadmill. Plus, if your treadmill is in constant view, it serves as a visual reminder. “Even if you decide to watch TV instead of exercising, being aware of your treadmill may make you less likely to snack,” says Jakicic.
On top of that, a treadmill also takes the guesswork out of working out. It ensures your speed and distance measurements are accurate, which allows you to better gauge your calorie burn and track your progress, says Bobby Kelly, owner of Results Only Fitness in Phoenix, AZ. If you’re considering other indoor exercise machines (like a stationary bike or elliptical), keep in mind that walking is a natural movement so you may be more comfortable and better able to get a good workout on a treadmill. If you’re worried about boredom, follow these tips to make treadmill workouts more fun.
Have a dance party: Create a tape of fast and slow songs. “Have fun with it—nobody has to know that you still love disco,” says Kelly. “Time will fly—and so will you—when you’re walking to your favorite beat.”
Give yourself a deal: Using a deck of cards, label the jacks a “sprint,” the queens a “hill,” the kings a “slow pace,” and the aces a “moderate pace.” Shuffle, flip one, do what it says for 1 minute, then flip another. Continue until you’ve completed your workout, reshuffling if needed, suggests Kelly.
Grab your spouse: Couples can still exercise together even with one treadmill. Do a series of three resistance moves such as biceps curls, squats, and ab crunches while your partner walks, then switch. Keep taking turns until you’ve both gotten in your workout.
Use the television: While watching TV, speed up when a commercial comes on. Or pick a character and speed up for each 2- or 3-minute segment that she’s on-screen.
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No treadmill? No problem!
When the weather’s bad, you’re waiting for a phone call, or you’ve got a sick child or parent to care for—and no treadmill—fitting in your daily walk can be tough. We asked Carol Espel, an exercise physiologist and fitness and program director at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami, FL, and Memer Kladis, former assistant director for The National Institute for Fitness and Sport in Indianapolis to develop a muscle-building “walking” routine that you can do around the house. This routine mimics walking movements and targets walking muscles to help you maintain flexibility and stay in tip-top walking form.
Leg circles (to keep hips flexible and strong): Holding onto a wall for support, lift your right leg out in front of you, bending the knee to form a 90-degree angle. Your thigh should be parallel to the floor, as if you’re marching. Rotating at the hip, circle your leg to the right as far as possible. Don’t move any other part of your body. Slowly lower your leg, then bring it back to the forward position again. Do 10 to 12 circles. Repeat with your left leg. For variety, reverse the leg circles by lifting your legs up and out to the side first, then rotating forward and down.
Hip circles (to keep hips flexible and mobile): Stand about 2 feet from a wall, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Lean into the wall, and place both hands on the wall for support. Bend your knees slightly, and circle your hips clockwise, as if you’re a belly dancer. Do 10 to 12 full circles, then rotate your hips counterclockwise.
Heel walks (to strengthen shins and help with heel-toe technique): Walk by balancing on your heels only; your feet should be flexed and your toes pointing toward the ceiling. Do a lap around your living room. For variety, try these with your heels pointing a bit inward or outward—this targets the shin muscles differently.
Toe walks (to strengthen calves and help with heel-toe technique): Walk by balancing on the balls of your feet, heels off the floor. Do a lap around your kitchen or living room. For variety, try these with your toes pointing a bit inward or outward—this targets the calf muscles differently.
Windmills (to keep shoulders flexible and agile): One at a time, circle each arm forward, up, back, and down. Alternate for 10 to 12 windmills with each arm, then reverse the direction.
Step lunges (to strengthen quads): Facing a staircase, place your right foot on the bottom step and your left foot several feet behind you on the floor. Lower your body until your right leg forms a 90-degree angle. Make sure that your right knee stays over your ankle. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position, concentrating on pushing up through your right heel. Do one set of 8 to 12 reps before switching to your left leg.
One-legged curls (to strengthen hamstrings): Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, your right knee bent, and your foot flat on the floor. Place your left foot on a standard-size kid’s ball (12 to 18 inches in diameter). Supporting yourself on your back, arms, and right leg, raise your pelvis a few inches off the floor. Digging your left heel into the ball, slowly curl it toward you. Pause, then slowly push the ball back, resisting the ground as you roll. Do one set of 8 to 12 reps before switching legs.
Pelvic tilts (to strengthen glutes): Lie on your back with your arms at your sides and your heels resting on a low stool, step, or box; your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Tighten your butt, and slowly lift your pelvis as high as is comfortable. Pause, then slowly lower without touching the floor. Repeat. Do 8 to 12 tilts.
Aerobic stepping (for cardio): Try climbing stairs or using the bottom step for a few minutes of step aerobics (pump up the intensity by adding arm movements). A bonus: Just 10 minutes of walking up and down stairs can boost your energy more than 50 mg of caffeine (the amount that’s in about half a cup of coffee), according to research.
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