AHA News: You don’t have to be an Olympian to find winter thrills – Consumer Health News

MONDAY, Feb. 7, 2022 (American Heart Association News) — Watching what Olympic athletes can do on snow and ice might have you thinking about trying a cold weather activity yourself. And a glance at the thermometer could quickly make you say “nahhh”.

Before you head back to the couch, know that there are experts who say not only can embracing winter be healthy, but even those who hate the cold can find ways to cope. Some even find it… fun.

“I always say it will be cold for probably the first five minutes,” said Beth Lewis, professor and director of the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “In fact, if it’s not cold for the first five minutes, you’re probably overdressed. But after that, you’ll feel absolutely wonderful.”

Exercising in cold weather can have particular benefits. Research suggests that cold facilitates the conversion of energy-storing white fat into calorie-burning beige fat. And Lewis points to studies that say people who exercise outdoors get more mood benefits than people who exercise indoors.

Those who hate the cold could indicate risks. In its guide to winter training injury prevention, the American College of Sports Medicine recognizes several, including frostbite (if you’re skiing, sledding, mountaineering, or otherwise), hypothermia, and snow blindness. Avalanches too. Which, for most of us, probably isn’t a problem.

For the temperatures that most people face, appropriate clothing will suffice. “The only time I would say it is safe to exercise outside is if you have ice,” or if the temperature is below 25 below zero, or if the wind chill is 35 below or worse, Lewis said.

His own tolerance for outdoor training is not as extreme. “Zero degrees is my threshold for going out,” she said. “It used to be minus 10. But now that I’ve gotten older, I think I’m becoming more of a wimp.”

His embrace of winter might make most non-Minnesotans look weak in comparison. It’s also an example of how the biggest obstacle to activity in the cold can be mental.

It’s a specialty of health psychologist Kari Leibowitz. Before earning her doctorate at Stanford, she spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

It was no easy undertaking for Leibowitz, who grew up relishing summers on the Jersey Shore.

“I’ve never been a winter kid and always felt a little ‘meh’ about the whole season,” she said. But when she started asking Norwegians how to deal with the fear of winter, they replied, “Why would we be afraid of winter? It’s such a beautiful time of year!”

People in Tromsø don’t see winter as a limit. “There are festivals during the winter,” she said.
“They ski. They spend time outdoors. And they find the opportunities of the season.”

Leibowitz now lives in San Francisco and teaches workshops on cultivating what she calls a “winter mindset.” This is not, to be clear, about accepting or denying serious issues such as seasonal affective disorder.

It’s about embracing the possible. That’s what happened to his sister-in-law, a runner who refused to do it during the New York winter.

After hearing from Leibowitz, she understood that running in cold weather had its benefits. She doesn’t sweat as much as in the summer and the “refreshing” air helps her wake up. She now runs outside all winter, Leibowitz said. “And she loves it.”

The cold requires preparation. She and Lewis both suggested dressing in layers, with a base layer that wicks moisture away from the skin. Leibowitz recommends wool; Lewis prefers a polyester-cotton blend, which she says balances breathability and sweat-wicking ability.

A turtleneck seals in warmth better than a scarf, Lewis said, and a hat works better than a headband. Because winter days are short, have reflective or lighted clothing to be in the dark. She loves the reflective suspenders, which can be slipped over anything you’re wearing.

Warm up indoors before you go out, she says. “I always recommend people do about five to 10 minutes of squats or lunges or something like that.” The biggest risk of injury is if you’re sitting in cold weather and then all of a sudden start doing something vigorous, she said.

If you’re really aiming to emulate these Winter Olympians, don’t rush out to buy a lot of gear. “I would recommend renting,” Lewis said. Also research the requirements of a sport. For example, if you want to try cross-country skiing, you’ll need to find a destination with groomed trails.

Whatever the Olympics inspires you to try, have fun.

“A lot of times we forget to have fun when we exercise,” Lewis said. “And doing those kinds of activities can bring that fun back.”

And if you’re trying something new, Leibowitz said, you don’t have to attempt an Olympian feat on your first outing. “It could be a walk around the block.” Or even spend a few minutes on your porch, enjoying the cold air.

“You don’t have to take this too seriously,” she said. “You can just go out and try to have a good time. Wear the right clothes. See what happens. See where it takes you.”

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Any opinions expressed in this story do not reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. If you have any questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected]

By Michel Merschel

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