If I told you something was available that could make tremendous improvements in your health — both physically and emotionally — you would want to know more, right? Then I would tell you about the thousands of studies showing its impressive benefits. In a nutshell, here are several advantages provided by this miraculous remedy:
- It burns calories.
- It brings much-needed oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout your body, including your brain.
- It thins the blood.
- It helps dispose of the body’s toxic substances and waste material.
- It improves sleep and mood.
- It strengthens the heart and immune system.
- It reduces the risk of cancer and other ailments.
- It relieves stress.
- It counteracts the effects of aging.
- It powers up joints, strengthens muscles and bones, and reduces the risk of falls.
By now, you must be wondering where you can buy this marvelous product. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale. But you can still get all these exceptional benefits without buying anything. That’s because the health-promoting miracle in question is … exercise.
If you’re tempted to stop reading, please don’t. Humans are designed to move, so I hope you aren’t intimidated by the idea of exercise. It does not have to be grueling or painful, as my patient Marty discovered. Just being moderately active and not sitting for long periods helps, as two recent clinical trials show. In separate studies, researchers in England and Australia reached similar conclusions: The more time spent sitting, regardless of whether that involves watching television, working on the computer, or simply lounging on the sofa, the worse for your health.
In one study, English scientists observed a nearly 150 percent increase in the risk of heart disease, a 112 percent increase in risk of developing diabetes, and close to a 50 percent increase in premature death for those individuals who spent the most time sitting — even if they exercised regularly! The Australian researchers, meanwhile, who used time spent watching television as a yardstick for sitting, found that watching the tube for six hours a day shortened lives by nearly five whole years, making prolonged sitting similar to obesity in terms of its effect on health. I think it’s safe to say that it was continual sitting — not television, per se — that took years off peoples’ lives. Fortunately, you may be able to get those years back just by being more active.
The Reasons Why Exercise Matters
As I’ve said many times, researchers who study fitness and exercise repeatedly observe that if the effects of exercise could be bottled and sold, that product would become an instant multibillion-dollar bestseller. Furthermore, if the majority of Americans would engage in moderate daily exercise, health care costs would not be spiraling out of control; the drug industry would lose its stranglehold on millions of people; and, after a few years, we would start seeing significant improvements in health statistics.
But if just thinking about going out in the cold, dreary weather makes you shudder, here’s something to keep in mind: Exercising in winter is even more beneficial than during mild weather for several reasons, including:
- Exercise stimulates circulation and helps the heart. In cold weather, blood vessels constrict and blood thickens, raising the risk of a heart attack and circulatory problems. But exercise counteracts the effects of cold weather.
- Exercise decreases the likelihood of developing SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a condition linked to inactivity and lack of exposure to sunlight. We’ll take a more detailed look at SAD in the weeks ahead.
- Holiday festivities during the coming months mean food, food, food, not to mention drinks. Exercise can help keep the pounds from piling up, even if you go over your two-cookie limit occasionally. It also assists with blood sugar management and insulin resistance.
- Winter exercise is a good excuse to get outdoors on nicer days, at least for a few minutes. That’s important because being outside can boost levels of vitamin D. In addition, being outside can improve your mood and mental clarity.
The Top 11 Ways to Get and Stay Active This Winter
Being active should not be a summer-only behavior. As you can see from the points listed above, it’s just as (if not more) important in winter. That’s why I’ve compiled the following list of 11 ways to get moving and stay motivated during the winter months. Even if getting up off the couch feels like a workout right now, please push through your resistance and at least try walking (unless, of course, your doctor has told you to strictly limit physical activity). I urge you to read through these suggestions and look for ways to put the ideas to work.
1. Make a schedule. Set aside a regular time for an exercise session, and stick to it. Choose one 30-minute daily session or three 10-minute sessions, or alternate between the two approaches. The main thing to remember here is that this part of your daily schedule is set in stone. Some patients have even devised “penalties” (a $1 fine, no dessert, or no TV that night, etc.) for days when they miss their exercise routines. The key is to find something that works for you and to stick with it.
2. Look for indoor exercise venues. Check out local alternatives before the weather gets really nasty. If you’re near a YMCA or YWCA, take advantage of the low-cost membership, since the facilities usually include gyms and sometimes swimming pools, exercise classes, and other activities. Some high schools offer similar options later in the day when students are gone. If nothing like this is available, there’s always the mall-crawl option of a brisk stroll through the local indoor shopping mall.
3. Rent or borrow exercise DVDs. For days when weather is at its worst, DVDs are a great way to try different kinds of exercise, like tai chi, Zumba, yoga, and lots more. I’ve seen patients who swore they would never exercise get hooked on various videos after they discovered how much fun some of these workouts can be.
4. Rotate workouts. Repetitive exercise routines make it easier to overwork one muscle, leading to injury. So, for example, you may walk one day, follow a tai chi video the next, take a ballroom-dancing lesson on the third day, and walk up and down several flights of stairs the day after that. Or you can choose to walk every day, since walking is relatively injury-free. And when sidewalks get icy, you can still walk in place indoors.
5. Dress for exercise success. Prepare properly for outdoor activities. Invest in cold-weather exercise wear, including special t-shirts and socks that wick away moisture and help prevent hypothermia; mittens or gloves; a headband or hat to cover your ears; and a lightweight, waterproof, insulated jacket, if necessary.
6. Invest in a good pair of comfortable shoes. This will help you avoid injury to your knees, ankles, and hips. Shop later in the afternoon when your feet are at their largest size of the day.
7. Multitask while working out. Some patients tell me they like to use their indoor workout time to catch up on news, watch their favorite TV show, listen to a book on tape, or talk on the phone.
8. Stay hydrated. Like summer workouts, exercising in winter can be dehydrating because you’re constantly exposed to artificial heat. I recommend drinking water before, during, and after exercise.
9. Keep moving intermittently after exercise. No matter when you prefer to work out, make an effort to avoid spending the rest of the day sitting. Get up every 20 minutes or so, and stretch or walk in place for a couple minutes. Set a timer to remind yourself. Otherwise, the prolonged periods of sitting can cancel out your hard-won exercise gains.
10. Take appropriate supplements, if necessary. Individuals with arthritis, for example, can benefit greatly from exercise, but they may need omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) to help ease the pain of creaky joints. I recommend 1,000 mg twice daily, preferably of a product that’s purified or molecularly distilled to remove toxins and impurities. I especially like the omega-3s found in Calamarine, a purified and stable omega-3 product. Vegetarians or those who are allergic to seafood can take advantage of flaxseeds or flaxseed oil as an alternative. I suggest one to two tablespoons of flaxseed oil daily.
11. Power up with protein. Adding protein powder is another excellent way to support your body when you’re working out. In fact, not ending a workout with protein really cancels out all the hard work you just did. There are new products available that taste remarkably good, are easy to mix, and provide your muscles with the building blocks they need to repair the tiny micro-tears created by exercise, especially workouts that involve weight training. I recommend looking for a product made with whey protein, since nearly all soy is genetically modified these days. Pick your favorite flavor, and mix it with water, nonfat milk, or another beverage of your choice.
I know many people work very hard to avoid exercising. You should hear the excuses from some of my patients! One even went as far back as elementary school to dredge up an oldie but goodie: He told me his dog ate his athletic shoes. Nice try, but no sale. Being active is too important to dismiss with such a silly excuse. So if you’re not already active, I hope you’ll join me on the exercise bandwagon and discover how good a little movement can make you feel.