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How to Stay Active With Winter Walking

Expert tips for staying warm and motivated as temperatures drop

spinner image Woman wearing a face mask taking a walk in the winter
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With winter fast approaching, it might seem tempting to ditch your daily walk. But when it comes to getting fit, chilly temperatures might actually be a good thing.

That’s because your overall metabolic rate increases in cold weather thanks to something called thermogenesis, the calorie-burning process by which the body generates heat. Add physical activity into the mix, and the benefits might be boosted even further: One 2017 study published in the American Journal of Human Biology found that a group of 53 hikers burned more calories in cold weather than warm, leading to weight loss for both men and women.

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If you’re looking for a low-impact way to stay active (and perhaps even shed some pounds) in the months to come, here’s what experts suggest to weatherproof your winter walking routine.

Perfect your winter wardrobe

There’s a phrase in Scandinavia, where physical activity is winter is highly encouraged: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Dressing for the cold means layering, says Portland, Oregon-based walking coach Judy Heller, founder of the group Wonders of Walking.

Layers keep you warm by creating pockets of air that trap body heat. Heller recommends starting with a moisture-wicking material against your skin (popular options include polyester, merino wool or silk), then adding a second synthetic layer on top. Last goes an outer layer of fleece or another insulating material, and, as needed, a waterproof jacket.

Don’t neglect your extremities, either: Hats and gloves are important for staying warm, as are moisture-wicking socks. Avoid cotton socks and clothing, Heller says, since cotton will trap moisture from sweat or snow and leave you feeling wet and chilly.

In freezing temperatures, Heller recommends wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth to warm the air you’re breathing. (If you already wear a face mask on your walks as a coronavirus-related precaution, it should serve the same purpose as a scarf.)

Besides fitting properly and supporting your feet, the right shoes should also provide insulation and traction in ice or snow. Products like traction chains worn over the soles of walking shoes can add grip, and local running and sporting goods stores may be able to provide you with personalized recommendations based on your gait.

Start slow and stay safe

“A lot of [getting active] is figuring out where you are and starting your exercise program at an appropriate level,” says sports medicine specialist Theodore Shybut, M.D., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.

Cold weather puts added strain on the heart and lungs, which means outdoor walking in the winter may not be suitable for everyone. Talk to your doctor before beginning a new walking routine, particularly if you have a preexisting condition or have recently recovered from an event like a heart attack or surgery.

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Shybut also notes that people should gradually increase the length of their walks. Consider building up to 30 minutes of brisk walking at a time, five days a week — a benchmark endorsed by organizations like the American Heart Association (you can also split that 30-minute goal into smaller chunks throughout the day, Heller says).

Other safety tips include going outside when visibility is good (Heller recommends wearing reflective strips on your clothes and shoes if you’ll be walking in the dark), checking the weather forecast before you head outside, and sticking to familiar paths and trails.

On particularly icy or inclement days, Shybut says the smartest choice may be to skip an outdoor walk altogether. Slippery sidewalks pose a fall risk for people of all ages, but older adults are even more vulnerable to falls and their complications, including fractures.

Lastly, don’t forget to stay hydrated. “When it’s cool out people don’t have the same thirst urge or pay as much attention to it,” Shybut says, so make a point to drink adequate fluids before a walk, particularly if it’s going to be a longer one.

Stick to a winter routine

Attire and safety precautions aside, staying motivated can be the hardest part of getting outside in cold weather. How to overcome the motivation gap? Accountability, Heller says, can be key to helping you stick with it until winter walking becomes habitual. Penciling in walks with friends or a formal walking group can help, provided you take coronavirus-related precautions such as wearing a mask.

Talking to a friend on the phone while you walk is another strategy — and something Heller herself does every Sunday when she connects with her training partner, who lives an hour and a half away. Just don’t forget to use earbuds to keep your hands free while you talk.

Another option is simply keeping your mind and senses engaged in observing the scenery around you, making your walk a more mindful activity.

And don’t forget, Heller says, that starting a new activity is an investment in your future fitness, even if the results take time. In other words?

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