Fitness / Outdoor Running

The Case for Running in the Cold Weather

Science says that you should hit the trail even when those temperatures drop.

When the weather turns cold, it can be tempting to turn up the fire, turn on the TV, and stay indoors until spring. But, aside from the obvious reasons that you should keep active (you know, like your health), working out in the cold weather may actually provide extra benefits.

You already know that running in cooler weather is easier than running in the heat. You’re less likely to get dehydrated or to experience other issues like muscle cramps and heat stroke. And, when your body’s not constantly trying to cool itself down, it can focus on performance. This is good news for your lungs and legs. However, beyond your day-of performance, exercising in the cold may also have lasting effects on your weight, your body composition, and even your longevity.

Why You Should Run In The Cold

According to a 2014 research study published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, our warm homes and offices are partly to blame for our expanding waistlines. To combat this phenomenon, regular exposure to cold can help people burn calories and lose weight. In fact, your body’s internal heat production—which increases when you’re cold—can expend a lot of energy. Plus, it can account for up to 30 percent of your regular energy burn. And, because energy equals calories, being cold fuels your natural calorie-burning furnace.

The above is true even when you aren’t exercising. Add exercise to the mix—like a nice long jog in the cold, or some wind sprints up and down your street—and you’ll increase that calorie burn even further.

Not all fat is created equal.

One of the more interesting benefits of exposure to cold is how it affects your body’s fat content. Humans have multiple kinds of fat. White fat stores energy, and is associated with obesity and diabetes. Brown fat, on the other hand, burns energy to help maintain body temperature. Plus, according to NIH-supported research published in Diabetes, white fat cells take on characteristics of brown fat cells when the human body is subjected to cold. After a month of exposure to mild cold, study participants showed a 42 percent increase in brown fat volume, a ten percent increase in metabolism, and improved insulin sensitivity. Once returned to normal temperature conditions, those changes subsided, suggesting that prolonged exposure to cold—in this case, a very manageable 66 degrees—may be the key to sustained benefits.

Fortunately, research suggests that this conversion from white to brown fat can actually help you acclimate to cold weather. So, the more time that you spend in cold environments, the more acclimatized you’ll become. And, all of that—the cold exposure and the fat conversion—leads to an increase in your resting energy expenditure.

Now, it’s probably true that you don’t want to stand outside shivering all day, and that’s understandable. But, given the positive impact of cold weather, you might consider going for a run when the temperatures drop. And, since exercise also appears to promote your body’s development of brown fat, cold weather running is a real win-win.

Run away from SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs in fall and winter when the days are shorter and the sun plays hard to get. It’s estimated that 6 percent of the U.S population is affected by SAD, and another 14 percent may suffer from a milder form of winter blues. Fortunately, like with other forms of depression, exercise can help.

When you exercise, your body releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins. This is another checkmark in favor of cold weather running and against indoor hibernation. Get outside when the sun’s out, and you’ll help your case even more. So, when you run in the cold winter months, you’re not only benefiting your physical state—you’re also helping your mental state.

Take some precautions.

Of course, cold weather running isn’t all calorie burning, fat conversion, and endorphins. It’s also… cold. So, it pays to protect yourself from the elements. For starters, warm up properly so your muscles are ready to move once you start running. Dress in layers, ideally a tight-fitting base layer, a warm middle layer, and a wind-protecting top layer. Be sure to keep your extremities warm, with gloves, a hat, and good socks. Then, all that’s left to cover is the small amount of skin you’re showing. So, wear sunblock—you can still get burned when it’s cold out—and apply some lip balm to spare your lips from the dry air.

Great, now you’re all set to log some miles, even in the dead of winter. And, you can do so knowing that it’s good for you.

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Fitness Outdoor Running

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