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Week of 20 November 1998

Vol. II, No. 15

Health Matters

Winter exercise: alternatives for staying in shape

I am an avid outdoor bicyclist and runner most of the year, but tend to slack off during the winter. What safe exercise alternatives are there during the winter?

There is no question that the winter makes it tougher on people who are trying to stay in shape. Less daylight, extremely cold temperatures, and messy roads are some of the hazards with which even the most devout outdoor athletes have to contend. However, with the proper precautions and a little creativity, staying fit during the winter is not impossible.

"It is certainly more challenging," says Kyle McInnis, clinical exercise program director at Boston University Medical Center. He adds that breaking away from your exercise program in the winter may be even more detrimental to your fitness than you realize.

People who exercise throughout the year, but cut down or drop their workouts during the winter are subject to "detraining," McInnis says. "There is a sharp decline in aerobic and strength fitness for these people and it typically occurs after a two- to three-week layoff. The higher the level of fitness, the steeper the decline. So it is very important to keep exercising to maintain your current fitness level."

There are myriad ways to exercise safely outdoors during the winter. According to McInnis, cross-training, which incorporates different forms of exercise, can be a great way for someone to stay fit when the weather turns bad.

Cross-country skiing is one alternative that has benefits for runners and bike riders alike, McInnis says. "If a runner or rider had to choose between cross-country skiing and swimming as alternatives," he says, "cross-country skiing has the better crossover benefit. This is because when you cross-country ski, you use similar lower body muscles to those used in riding and running."

For people who want to stick to their outdoor running, riding, or walking routines during the winter, McInnis says, there are certain precautions they may take for a safer workout.

Running or biking during daylight hours is best, but those who cannot do so should wear reflective clothing so they can be seen more easily. When roads are icy, people should consider their footwear. McInnis says runners and walkers should choose shoes and sneakers with good soles for better traction.

According to McInnis, it is vital for people to dress in layers. Wearing extra clothing allows air to get trapped between the clothing; therefore, there is less exposure to the cold. "This also allows you to have better control of your environment because as your body heat rises, you can peel off layers," he says.

The type of material you wear is equally important. The first layer of clothing should be made of polypropylene, which helps whisk sweat away from the body and pushes the moisture into the second layer of clothing to help prevent body chills. The second layer should be made of wool to keep you warm, while the third layer should be of a nylon or water-resistant material, such as that of a windbreaker.

McInnis also says that wearing a hat and mittens is a smart move because most of your body heat escapes through your head and hands. Mittens are a better choice than gloves, he says, because the fingers stay warmer when they are touching.

Before exercising, it is wise to stretch and warm up. McInnis says a warm-up should consist of approximately five minutes of low-level exercise before beginning a more intense workout. After exercising, it is imperative to stretch because cold weather tends to decrease the flexibility of the muscles and joints. He also says that drinking plenty of water is necessary to help restore fluids lost while working out.

Although outdoor exercise can be done safely most of the time, there will be days when it is not the best alternative. "It's important to use your head," McInnis says. "For those horrible days, have an alternative. Home exercise equipment, mall walking, or even a guest pass at a health club are some suggestions."

"Health Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information on winter exercise alternatives or other health matters, call 638-6767.