Staying Active in Chicago During the Winter

December 26, 2017

The Chicago winters can be brutal. Cold, gray and long hours of darkness can make everyone feel sluggish, tired and ready to hibernate. But don’t let the cold weather make you become a winter couch potato. Regular exercise through the winter months will make you feel more energetic, which should make it a little easier to get out of your warm bed on cold, dark mornings.

In addition to the cardiovascular benefits of staying active in the winter, it’s good for our waistlines, too. Research shows we may be genetically more prone to putting on weight in the winter. 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. 

Here are some easy ideas to help you stay active until the spring thaw:

Exercise at home.  No way you’re going out into the cold? That’s ok, you can be active within the warm walls of your own home. If you have the equipment, make regular use of your stationary bike and exercise videos. Alternatively, you can start walking up and down the stairs in your house or apartment building for a great high intensity cardio and leg workout. One option for beginners is to add walking intervals every few floors. For example, leave the stairwell and walk the length of the hallway and back before resuming your ascent. As you get stronger, start skipping steps for a more intense workout.

Dance! Whether it’s Motown or hip hop, put on some of your favorite tunes and dance like no one is watching. Pick 3-4 songs in a row and you've got yourself a 20-minute workout while dinner is in the oven.

Ice skating. Head to the Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon for ice skating. It’s a great aerobic and social workout that can be done free of charge (although you will need to pay to rent skates). Ice skating uses a variety of muscles, including those stomach muscles as you laugh at yourself and others for falling down.

Join a team. Check out your local YMCA or community center and join a team or individual sports program. Competition levels can range from recreational to expert. The most cost-effective programs are usually run by local municipalities where gym space at a local school or community center is secured and people drop in for a game of basketball, floor hockey, volleyball, indoor soccer or other team sports.

Indoor swimming. Like the water? Call your local indoor pool for open swim times and spend 30 minutes doing laps. Swimming is a great way to fit cardio into your workout routine without putting stress on your bones, joints and muscles. Though it’s a low-impact workout, swimming is an aerobic exercise that also builds strength due to the moderate resistance that water provides. Swimming can also be good for your mind and relaxation. Water has long been a symbol of renewal and clarity, and studies suggest just being around it has a powerful effect on the brain.

Lunchtime walks. Sometimes the darkness in early morning and after work can prevent us from going outside. Try to take a brisk walk or an exercise class during your lunch hour. If you are looking for something fun to do around the holidays that won’t stretch your wallet or your waistline, head out to free outdoor event like Zoolights at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Let it snow! Don’t let the snow outside discourage you. Did you know snow increases the calorie burn of each step? A 30-minute moderate walk on an even surface burns 106 calories for the average 140-pound woman, but walking through snow for the same amount of time more than doubles the burn, to 256 calories. Just be sure to watch your footing. Run slower and take shorter strides.

If you do choose to be active outdoors, be sure to dress properly. Wear three different layers so that you can peel them off as your body temperature increases:

  1. Base layer: Choose a snug but breathable shirt that wicks sweat from skin. Avoid cotton, it holds onto 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 proper 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.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to do a warm-up exercise inside first. Take five to 10 minutes and do some low level aerobic exercise like jogging in place or doing jumping jacks. That way, when you step outside, you'll already be warm.

Remember, it’s important to stay active, even in the winter, for optimum health all year long.

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As of March 15, 2023