Winter Workouts: 9 Myths About Exercising in the Cold

An expert athletic trainer and exercise physiologist explains and debunks common winter workout misconceptions

From scraping ice off your car before heading to the gym to bundling up with extra layers for outdoor activities, wintertime presents inconvenient obstacles that need to be overcome before we can get to the actual act of exercising.

However, just because the weather is less pleasant, it doesn’t mean that your workout routine should fall off track.

Sure, it’s one thing to lose a bit of motivation because of inclement weather; that's an inevitability for everyone once or twice during the season. But don’t let common myths and misconceptions surrounding wintertime exercise deter you from participating in your favorite activities or allow you to justify extra indulgences.

Below, Dr. Scott Weiss, a board certified athletic trainer, exercise physiologist and licensed physical therapist in New York City, explains and debunks the nine most common myths about wintertime exercise and fitness.

Myth 1: Running in the cold can weaken your immune system.
“This is true,” says Weiss. “Running and exercising in cold weather is a double stressor for the body causing a greater increase in nor-epinephrine and cortisol. This translates into immune-depression and decreased ability to fight infection.” This doesn't mean you can't run at all, though. To help keep your immune system strong, he suggests decreasing the intensity and duration of your outdoor workouts in cold weather.

Myth 2: Cold weather helps you lose weight.
Weiss says that while shivering can help to burn extra calories, unless you spend all day sitting outside quivering (not recommended), it’s not true that winter weather helps to aid weight loss when compared to any other time of the year.

Myth 3: Cold weather makes you depressed.
“Not exactly true,” says Weiss. “Winter depression, aka ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD), is not related to the cold, but to light.” Because in some places it gets darker earlier, many people aren’t exposed to enough sunlight during the winter which can lead to feelings of depression and sadness.

Myth 4: You need more sleep in the winter.
“This is not true,” says Weiss. “The pineal gland is responsible for the sleep cycle and based on light not temperature —in actuality the cold can keep you up longer. As daylight fades, the pineal gland produces more melatonin, which causes us to feel sleepy. In the morning, the gland is instructed to stop producing the hormone, which aids in waking up. We feel sleepier in the winter because there’s less daylight, hence more melatonin.”

Myth 5: You shouldn’t exercise in the cold.
“This really depends on how cold, but for the most part this myth is false,” says Weiss. “Almost everyone can exercise safely during cold weather unless suffering from asthma, c-v disease or Raynaud’s phenomenon. If the temperature dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17.8 Celsius) or the wind chill is extreme, consider taking a break or choosing an indoor exercise instead. If not, dress in layers and decrease the duration of the workout.”

Myth 6: Cold weather makes you eat more.
Weiss says this “myth” is actually true. “Caloric intake tends to increase as the weather turns colder,” he said. “Increased melatonin levels may be a cause of increased appetite. Furthermore, you tend to stay indoors more and that can also lead to greater food intake.” He explained that some researchers believe genetics and anthropology to be additional factors that can cause an increase in food intake during the winter. “We are genetically programmed to conserve calories in the winter which in turn will give us energy for the seasons when we need it more,” he said.

Myth 7: Injury recovery takes longer in the winter.
Weiss dubs this a total myth. “Unless you are living in the wild, the winter time should have no effect on your healing,” he said. “I have helped professionals and Olympians heal in the summer and winter equally. What’s more important is seeing the macro view of your life and planning accordingly.”

Myth 8: Drinking alcohol keeps you warm in cold weather.
“True,” says Weiss. “Alcohol increases body temperature acutely and a quick shot will definitely warm the body.” However, he says that alcohol during exercise is bad idea because, among other reasons, while your extremities will become warmer temporarily, you will lose heat in your core where it’s most important.

Myth 9: It’s OK to drink less water in the winter.
“If your winter experiences a cold climate, it’s always good to go out of the way to hydrate for three reasons,” says Weiss. “One, in the dry, cold climate we need extra water to keep our mucous membranes moist as this helps ward off infection. Second, in the winter you may not feel, hot, parched and want to drink water because you feel cold. But rest assured, just because you are not in a hot, sweaty climate doesn’t mean you need less water (some actually say you need more). Finally, greater core and peripheral water level aids in the moisture of the skin and total blood volume. This also helps prevent chapping, cracking, opportunistic infection, and c-v function.”