For many people, winter is a season of contradictions. We know that getting exercise is key to keeping our bodies and minds healthy, especially during this period of celebration and indulgence.
At the same time, many of us might be feeling a pull to hibernate: to slow down, get comfy, and turn inward. It can feel impossible to choose between finding the ease you crave and pursuing your fitness goals.
This inclination to downshift isn’t a problem to overcome. Rather, it can be an opportunity.
“When we try to maintain this drive to be productive, even in our fitness, it goes against the energy your body wants to be in during the winter,” says Cat Thompson, founder of the coaching company Emotional Technologies. “You’ll end up feeling even more tired than when you started.” This can make it harder to work out at all and potentially render those workouts less effective.
As it does for all animals, winter affects human beings in unique ways — not just because of the temperature outside for those in cold climates, but because of a change in how much daylight we see.
“Light is energy in so many ways, and you can feel that in your body and your mind,” says Thompson. “No matter how old you are, there’s that feeling of play during the summer, that feeling of lightness, literally. By the time winter comes, that energy has waned considerably.”
And that’s a good thing.
Not only does honoring this natural change make it easier to sustain a consistent fitness routine and ward off injury by taking time to recover, but it also means you get to embrace the season for its unique qualities calling on you to turn inward and slow down beyond your workouts.
Mother Nature is the creator of fitness periodization.
Although progressive overload and consistency are integral parts of any training regimen, it’s important to adapt to seasonal weather changes, making sure safety and health are top of mind, says Megan Looney, NASM-PT, CES, a Scottsdale, Ariz.–based Life Time master personal trainer.
Mother Nature is the creator of fitness periodization. Based on the idea of nonlinear progression, periodization emphasizes gradual progress by alternating between periods of intense training and intentional recovery over many weeks and months.
Winter is a time of rest and recovery, a respite before new energy blooms in spring. Our experts offer guidance to help you thrive — and reach your fitness potential — during winter.
The Flip Side
There are wide variations in temperature and daily-light duration depending on where you live: If you’re in Arizona or Texas, you may not experience the same sort of meteorological or energetic change as someone living farther north. If that’s the case for you, all this advice is still relevant — but for the summer.
Looney says she makes plenty of training adjustments to deal with the intense summer heat, which can have a withering effect similar to that of winter’s chill.
“In the winter, I encourage my clients to get outdoors because of the plethora of mental- and emotional-health benefits, especially after the hot summer months,” she explains.
For more tips on moving through all four seasons, visit “Your Seasonal Fitness Guide“.
Challenge: Low energy.
Solution: Direct your energy intentionally.
As it is with plants in winter, this is a time for us, too, to turn inward and toward the roots, Thompson says. You’re nurturing a sense of inner vitality, and that might mean adopting a slower practice, such as yoga or tai chi.
That doesn’t mean being sedentary, Thompson says — although lounging and sleeping certainly have their place — because these pursuits can be intense. The difference is in seeing movement as a practice instead of a workout, she explains.
“Winter movement is more about emotional healing that the body needs and less about the physical work — it’s about going within,” she says.
That inner focus allows you to be quieter and more intent on feeling what’s going on in your body. Spoiler: This is not easy, and it’s not always peaceful, but Thompson believes it’s worth the effort — and winter is the perfect time for that exploration.
Although such exploration can be challenging, Thompson says, it creates space for more joy and abundance. “Think of winter as an energy colonic,” she says. “All that old gunk you’re holding on to — you can let it go now.”
Having low energy can also help us focus on needed rest, adds physical therapist Kate Ayoub, DPT. Put a real bedtime and wake-up routine in place, along with restorative practices like catching up with friends, journaling, starting a gratitude list, and taking time to stretch more often.
Your body will tell you when it needs to rest,
and that happens often to people in the winter.”
“Your body will tell you when it needs to rest, and that happens often to people in the winter,” she says. For example, if your caffeine consumption is ratcheting up because you’re tired, or you find that you’re catching every cold and flu that floats by, Ayoub says, those are indications you need a reset that’s more restorative.
Still feel sluggish? Shake it out, advises Cristi Christensen, author of Chakra Rituals: Awakening the Wild Woman Within and creator of Soul Fire, yoga that incorporates dance and meditation. Literally shake every part of your body wildly, from your fingers to your booty to your toes. Shake as if you were trying to dry yourself off without a towel (for at least 30 seconds to two minutes). This activity will get your heart pumping and your lymph circulating and will give you a burst of energy.
Christensen also recommends taking mindful movement breaks at least a few times a day. “I am a big fan of micro-movement practices like doing a handful of sun salutations, jumping rope, or putting on your favorite song and dancing and shaking all the heaviness out,” adds Christensen. “This can [also] be a great way to get your body and mind warmed up for more intense exercise, such as cross-country skiing [or] winter trail runs, as it lubricates all the joints and gets the energy flowing.”
Challenge: Lack of motivation.
Solution: Seek out novelty.
Why do New Year’s resolutions have such a notoriously abysmal success rate? A possible answer is that motivation doesn’t always generate enthusiasm — and you can force yourself to keep up an unfulfilling movement practice for only so long, says Mike Matthews, author of The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation.
If your chosen activity doesn’t feel good physically or mentally, motivation may wane before you’re able to create a sustainable habit. In other words, building a habit around something you hate is hard.
You can discover your fitness likes and dislikes at any time of year, not just in winter, Matthews notes. “But during a season that’s more introspective, when you might be thinking about what you enjoy, it’s a good time to think about why you’re pursuing a certain activity,” he says.
Instead of doing certain pursuits because you think you should, or because of the potential outcome, use changes in motivation as a chance to try and assess new options. Dance, yoga, martial arts, skiing, pickleball, weightlifting, group fitness — there’s a broad range of opportunities for you to be a beginner again. You don’t need to plant your flag and declare that this is your new activity from now on. The goal is to play.
“When you find your thing, the one that makes you excited, you won’t need much motivation,” says Mike Fitch, creator of the Animal Flow body-weight movement practice. “Try a lot of things, keep exploring, and if you don’t like something, move on to the next thing.”
He adds that it can be particularly helpful to choose something you’ve believed you would never do. Maybe you’re a powerlifter who hasn’t tried Pilates, or you’re a triathlete who passes the indoor climbing gym and never stops in.
Find your motivation again by giving yourself the chance to be awkward and maybe a little terrible at first. “You may be shocked by how bad you are at an activity,” Fitch says. “And then you may discover that this thing you’d dismissed is one you absolutely love.”
Challenge: Tight muscles and cranky joints.
Solution: Focus on your mobility.
Even if you live in a warm location, the tendency to go inward during winter can increase sedentary time, especially if you’re catching up on rest. Balance this not by pushing yourself back into hard-charging workouts, but rather by using the time to move in new ways, advises Fitch.
“The way to reduce injury risk and improve health for our muscles, joints, nervous system, and everything else is to create resiliency in the body,” he says. “Our bodies are little adaptation machines, which is good. But it can be bad if we’re doing the same movements again and again.”
That goes for everyday movements as well as exercise, he adds. We tend to operate in one plane of motion and stress the same muscles repeatedly — think of how much you sit, which puts your body in one position. Fitch adds that if you live in a place that gets cold in the winter, this shorter range of motion can get even smaller because now you’re sitting more inside and hunched against icy winds outside.
“You get more restricted in your movement,” he says. “And you tend to sit for longer periods of time.”
Increasing your mobility involves adding more variety into your everyday movement, he says. The good news is that this doesn’t take much time. In fact, you can do it by adding short “movement snacks” into your day, where you deliberately do different types of motion, suggests Katy Bowman, founder of Nutritious Movement and author of Move Your DNA.
“We tend to wear bulky clothes in the winter, and this can leave joints stiffer because they’re not getting their usual range of motion,” she says. “Give your shoulders, hips, ankles, and feet some extra mobility work each day to make up for lost movement.”
Challenge: Fitness losses.
Solution: Mix it up to get even stronger.
“Many people worry the winter months will harm their progress in whatever physical activity or sport they’re doing, but that’s not the case at all,” says physical therapist and strength-and-conditioning specialist Carol Mack, DPT, CSCS. “Working on form, strength training, or cross-training can make you a better runner, cyclist, triathlete, or whatever you do — as long as it’s done with intention and purpose.”
Professional athletes have an off-season for a reason, she says. It’s not just because games and races aren’t scheduled then — it’s to allow for conditioning that helps them maintain their high performance level.
In the same way that new types of activity can replenish your motivation, amp up your enjoyment level, and improve mobility, that strategy can lead to significant gains when you go back to your favorite activities. “Giving your body and mind a break from routine is huge in terms of what it provides the rest of the year,” Mack says. “You’ll be less likely to experience burnout, injury, and training plateaus.”
She suggests starting winter with short-term goals specific to the season. These should be different from the longer-term goals you might have for the rest of the year. You might even have daily or weekly goals based on what you want to achieve.
For example, if you started swimming at an indoor pool, you might set a goal based on frequency, such as going two times this week, or a goal about duration or intensity, such as two additional laps per session or a faster time.
Reevaluate your progress every couple of weeks, suggests Mack. “What matters most for winter training is for this goal to keep you challenged, interested, and engaged.”
Challenge: Winter doldrums.
Solution: Get fresh air — on every level.
Studies show that time in nature can improve sleep, reduce stress, boost attention, and elevate mood — all important for emotional health and fitness goals.
“Going outside at any time has major mental-health benefits, but in the winter, when there’s less light, it’s particularly important,” says Mack. Even just a few minutes outside can serve as a break, she notes, especially if you’re getting some activity along the way.
If you’re the indoor-fitness type, an outdoor activity can be a refreshing change, Mack says, and it can go with the vibe of being more thoughtful and intentional about how you move. Try a winter hike that’s not about how far or how fast you go (if you’re in a snowy locale, you’ll need to slow down to avoid slipping anyway) but instead draws your focus to your surroundings.
Another doldrums buster is cultivating more curiosity, says wellness coach Kate Larsen, MCC, CWC, NBC-HWC, author of Progress Not Perfection. In terms of fitness, that might mean spending the season thinking about whether you’re still joyful in your chosen activity. Maybe you’ve always been a runner, for instance, but you haven’t taken time to explore whether you run because you truly love it or it’s just part of your identity.
“Think about what’s prompting you to stay moving — what’s your intrinsic motivation, and has that changed over time?” she suggests. “This is a great time to look at the judgments you may have put on yourself. Are you doing something because you want to or because you think you should?”
Most likely, mixing up your activity and trying new things will start this process and help you see that this could be the winter you make a big change — or maybe you fall in love with your usual activity all over again.
“Being curious is such a gift,” says Larsen. “What intrigues you? What haven’t you done? Start there.”
This article originally appeared as “Moving Through Winter” in the December 2021 issue of Experience Life.