As winter descends on the northern hemisphere, temperatures drop and daylight hours decrease, many people may want to spend more time indoors. And those of us who are confined for the second time may feel even less inclined to get out and exercise. But staying indoors can have unintended health consequences, due to both a lack of physical activity and exposure to daylight.
Being physically active year-round has many physical and mental health benefits. Exercise can even counter some of the negative effects winter weather can have on our energy levels and mood.
Research shows that people exercise for an average of eight minutes less during the cooler months. People are also giving up other activities they do in the warmer months, like active travel. Light-intensity activities (such as slow walking and housework) have been shown to decrease during the winter, while time spent sitting and sleeping increased.
But, despite a decrease in light intensity activity and more sleep, the researchers did not find all the differences in terms of sleep quality, he also didn’t see a decline in moderate and vigorous activities — like scheduled exercise classes or walking the dog — which people were still doing, despite the weather. A pre-print study (not yet peer-reviewed) also suggests that activity levels were lower during the first confinement of spring. That could mean people could be even less active this winter.
There are many reasons why we may lose our motivation to exercise during the winter months. In winter, low levels of ambient light coupled with shorter days reduce vitamin D exposure. This brings us to feeling tired or fatigued. People often experience disturbed sleep also during the winter months, which further contributes to low energy levels.
Seasonal mood swings can also make it hard to find the motivation to get up and move. Many people (especially women) to experience a bad mood as the weather cools. Some even develop mental health disorders such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in which a person experiences symptoms of depression for the winter months.
The reasons we exercise can also affect our level of motivation. For example, motivation has been shown to wane if the primary goal of our exercise is to improve health and body image, rather than exercising to pleasure and achievement. Research also shows that people who exercise outdoors all year are more apt to find the time to stick to their routine and are more motivated by the enjoyment or challenge of their exercise than those who are only active in the warmer months. So it’s easy to see how a person’s mood can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle.
Benefits of exercise
The benefits of regular physical activity are widely reported for physical health – including weight reductions, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes and certain types of cancer. It is also associated with greater immune function.
Physical activity is also important for well-being. It was shown at reduce fatigue and improve job satisfaction), optimism, self esteem and better stress management. Exercise can also be used effectively to treat mental health issues such as depression and anxiety SADand promotes positive mood.
Although the winter weather may not always allow it, exercising outdoors is also excellent for reduce mental fatigue and stressimproving welfare, satisfaction and happiness in life. Teenagers in particular benefit mentally from be in natural spaces. Blue spaces – such as coastal regions and inland waterways – also have restorative mental health benefits.
Outdoor exercise also offers more opportunities for social interaction, which, if allowed, is important for our health and well-being during this winter confinement. Exercising outdoors in natural light is also linked to improved sleep quality, physical health and well-being.
To get these mental and physical benefits, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough exercise. The UK NHS recommends a weekly health goal of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity), which can easily be broken down into smaller ten-minute chunks throughout the week. Moderate activity is enough to increase your heart rate, feel warmer and breathe faster. An easy way to tell is that you can still talk but have trouble singing. Two days of the week should also focus on strengthening activities.
Although it can sometimes be difficult to find the motivation to exercise, wearing an activity tracker (wearable accelerometer) or a phone app that records activity (such as step count) can motivate and enable people to set and achieve goals. Engaging in an activity may also be easier if you have someone to play sports with. Increase the challenge – such as the number of activity sessions, intensity (such as walking speed or weight lifted) or time spent in each session – can also increase fitness and strength.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to be active during the winter. In addition to sports and forms of exercise, taking active transportation (walking and cycling to work or school) or doing household chores will all help. The most important thing is to break up sitting time with movement and activities outdoors, in daylight, to ensure you reap the additional health benefits.