Winter Woe: Your body's chemical switch has flipped to storing more fat.
Fix-it trick: Get your motor running. When University of Colorado researchers studied a group of 12 women and six men in both summer and winter, they discovered that their production of ATLPL, a chemical that promotes fat storage, almost doubled during the winter and dropped during the summer. But you're not doomed to don fat pants all season, scientists say. Exercise may increase SMLPL, the muscle enzyme that promotes the burning of fat, to offset the pudge-promoting effects of ATLPL. "We found that people who are normally physically active are more protected from weight gain," says study author Robert E. Eckel, MD. Get in at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days, whether it's Spinning, snowshoeing, or building a snowman.
Winter Woe: 'Tis the season for big sweaters -- the better to hide your bulges with.
Fix-it trick: Opt for layers that leave a little bit of your silhouette intact. It's no surprise that your comfy cardigan may stealthily up the odds you'll skip your workout, since it keeps soft spots under wraps, says Jennifer Baumgartner, a psychologist in Potomac, Maryland, who makes the link between clothing and mind-set for her clients. "The first thing I tell people who are trying to lose weight is to avoid baggy clothing, since you won't be able to see the positive changes in your body," she says. "There's also a subconscious association between baggy clothes and lounging." To help break the lazy spell, pick sweaters in red, pink, or bright blue, Baumgartner advises. Mood research suggests that these colors jolt your senses and help energize you.
Winter Woe: Your carb cravings skyrocket when the days get short.
Fix-it trick: Munch on healthy carbs in the afternoon before the sun goes down to stave off a splurge. Winter can trigger cravings for comforting, sweet carbs because diminished sunlight during the season makes serotonin in the brain less active. Too little of this mood-lifting chemical leaves you feeling tired and hungry, says Judith Wurtman, PhD, founder of Triad, a Harvard Hospital weight-management center, and coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet. Your brain is making you desire carbs because after you eat them, your serotonin level will rise. Wurtman's research found that "carbohydrate cravers" with seasonal affective disorder may consume an additional 800 calories or more a day because they satisfy their munchies with fatty carbs; indulge like that for five days straight and you'll gain a pound. Put yourself in a good mood during winter's dark days by instead eating low-fat, healthy carbs, such as sweet potatoes, oatmeal with a sprinkle of brown sugar, and cinnamon toast. Because cravings tend to grow stronger as the day goes on, try to eat protein, dairy products, and vegetables for breakfast and lunch, Wurtman says. Then have a low-fat carb snack, such as popcorn, soy crackers, or cereal, in the afternoon. For dinner, opt for roasted potatoes, whole-grain pasta, black bean soup, or vegetable stew with barley. (Avoid eating a lot of protein, because that prevents serotonin from being made.) Another slimming strategy that may help put the brakes on binges is to spend at least 20 minutes a day outside or near a bright window to amp up your serotonin, suggests Donnica Moore, MD, author of Women's Health for Life.
Winter Woe: A snowfall derails your usual outdoor workout.
Fix-it trick: Let it snow! The white stuff increases the calorie burn of each step. For example, a 30-minute moderate walk on an even surface burns 106 calories for the average 140-pound woman. Snowshoeing for the same amount of time more than doubles the burn, to 256 calories. Runners, meanwhile, can safely jog through the season by stealing these get-a-grip strategies from the pros up north, who regularly brave the flakes.
1. Invest in a trail-running shoe for its deeper treads, which provide better traction — some water-resistant models, like the Asics Gel-Arctic 2 WR ($90, asics.com for info) have removable spikes on the outsole — or a set of winter cleats, such as Yaktrax ($30, amazon.com), which slip on over your running sneakers.
2. Listen to your body: Run slower than usual and take shorter strides. "If you continue your normal stride length, your calves will be sore the next day, because you tend to claw the ground with your toes to keep your footing," says marathon coach Ronnie Carda, PhD, coordinator of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's physical activity program.
3. Skip the hills. "More falls happen on downhills, because you naturally tend to pick up your pace, making it harder to stop when you hit an icy patch," says Jan Ochocki, a coach with the Road Runners Club of America in Minneapolis.
4. "Get out while the powder is down" is the basic rule of thumb, Carda says; sit it out if snow refreezes overnight into hard-packed ice.
Winter Woe: You're too comfy on the couch to break a sweat.
Fix-it trick: Don't settle on your sofa until you've completed your workout for the day. "It's a motivation killer," Baumgartner says. Change from your work clothes directly into workout wear — skip the pj's! — when you get home. Still can't peel yourself off the cushions? Stash resistance bands under the seat to remind yourself to get moving during commercial breaks. Or try the at-home, no-equipment routine that follows, from Mike Donavanik, a celebrity trainer in Beverly Hills. Do these moves during commercials rather than fast-forwarding and repeat the circuit until your show starts up again.
— 15 squats
— 15 push-ups
— 15 crunches
— 15 seconds of high knees
Winter Woe: Brr! It's too cold to exercise outside.
Fix-it trick: Dress for success in freezing temperatures. With the right gear, it's almost never too frigid to work out, according to John W. Castellani, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. Because moisture on your skin evaporates and pulls much-needed heat from your body, the key is to dress so that you're protected but you don't get soaked with sweat, Castellani says. "Begin your workout feeling cool, not toasty, since you'll warm up once you get moving." Consult his "Dress Code for Winter Workouts" checklist (on slide 10) before you head out, and do your warm-up, stretching, and cooldown inside to reduce your exposure. If it's a blustery day, start your walk or run by facing the wind so you'll work hardest when you're fresh.
Winter Woe: You can't get out of bed on dark mornings to do your a.m. workout.
Fix-it trick: Tuck in earlier to go from tired to inspired. "Darkness is a cue for your brain to crank out the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin," says Alfred Lewy, MD, a sleep and mood disorder researcher at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. "In the winter, when you wake up before sunrise, it's like having jet lag — for four or five months," Lewy says. If it's not possible to wait for the sun to sneak in your workout when you're more energized, he suggests making your wake-up easier by going to bed 15 minutes earlier each week over the next four weeks: Set your cell phone alarm for when it's time to hit the sack at night and avoid computer and TV use for an hour before bedtime to shut out light and other brain stimulators. That extra hour of shut-eye could make a huge difference in your morning-after mood: Brazilian researchers randomly assessed 200 healthy people and found that night owls, who went to sleep at midnight, were almost three times more likely to experience severe symptoms of depression than those who turned in at 11 p.m.
Cool Ways to Torch Calories
Try these activities for a half hour of sizzling power.
Building a fire: 80 calories*
Having a snowball fight: 96
Shoveling snow: 192
Skiing (cross-country): 256
Skiing (downhill): 192
*Calories burned are based on a 140-pound woman.
Instant Rehab for Soggy Sneakers
Salvage your slush-soaked kicks overnight with this three-step checklist from John Luna, footwear product manager for Asics.
— Remove sock liners and wet laces and hang them up so the sneakers can dry more quickly.
— Stuff shoes with wadded newspaper to soak up the stink and moisture.
— Place them in a warm, dry spot but not too close to the radiator: Heat breaks down the foam and rubber in sneakers.
Tip: Spraying your sneakers with a waterproofing solution can help them withstand the wet better, Luna says, but it can also make them less breathable. Try Granger's G-Max Universal Footwear Waterproofer ($10, rei.com).
Dress Code for Winter Workouts
1. Base layer: Choose a snug but breathable shirt that wicks sweat from skin; look for a synthetic fabric, like polypropylene or capilene, or go for silk. But avoid cotton; it holds on to moisture and can quickly lose its insulating powers when wet. Try a turtleneck for walking or a long-sleeve tee for running.
2. Middle layer: Add a fleece or wool top to provide insulation; how thick depends on the temperature and the intensity of your exercise. Don't forget your hat and mittens if it's near freezing.
3. Outer layer: When it dips below freezing, top off with a jacket that resists wind and water but still breathes; Gore-Tex and nylon are good options. (As it nears zero, also add a fourth, insulating layer between the middle and outer layers and a ski mask to shield your face.)
Stay fast in these protective layers: Icebreaker Bodyfit 260 LS Crewe ($90, icebreaker.com); The North Face lightweight TKA 80 Hybrid 1/2 Zip fleece ($55, thenorthface.com); Mountain Hardwear Shashi Jacket with armpit zips ($325, mountainhardwear.com).
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2011.