Working out in winter weather

Now that the temperature has plummeted, and the days are shorter, do you find yourself losing your motivation to stick with your regular exercise routines? How can you adjust when there’s frost on the ground and you used to love running under the warm summer sun? Is an indoor gym membership the only viable option to staying fit this winter? BeWell thinks not; four of our experts (see “About the authors,” below) put their heads together to give you this guide to working out in winter weather. Take that, New Year’s resolutions!

People often feel so tired in the winter months. How can we motivate ourselves to exercise?

There can be biological reasons for feeling more lethargic during winter months, so don’t hesitate to check in with your doctor if you are feeling abnormally tired. Otherwise, here are a few tips for renewing your motivation this winter season:

  • Remind yourself of why you started your fitness routine in the first place. Put up pictures of that awesome hike that you want to be able to take during summer break or use a motivational quote/word as the screen saver on your phone, computer, or as a password.
  • Sign-up for an activity. The accountability of having registered for a class or preparing for a fun activity like a 5k walk/jog can keep motivation high.
  • Get friends, co-workers involved. The accountability of friends and co-workers is amazing and it’s also fun to have workout buddies. Check out BeWell’s Healthy Work Environment program if you are looking for support in creating a workplace group for walks, workouts, and/or other healthy behaviors.
  • Keep it fresh. Switch up your routine! Our bodies and our minds get bored doing the same old thing.
  • Set realistic goals. Success breeds success, so set yourself up for it! Maybe consider a shorter, more intense workout during your lunch break, if you are finding it unrealistic to be motivated to work out after work when it is dark.
  • Have fun! The best exercise is the one that you will do! Find an activity that you actually enjoy. You will be more likely to do it and stick with it if you are having a good time. 

What does research tell us about the effect of the seasons on our behavior? How can we accommodate the seasons when setting our goals?

Research shows that seasons can have an effect on our mood and behaviors. Some people may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can cause tiredness or low energy, appetite and sleep pattern changes, and weight gain during the winter months. The Mayo Clinic suggests speaking with a doctor if you feel down for days at a time and you can't get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy: learn more at

Using the SMART acronym is one way to accommodate for the seasons when setting goals. Research suggests that we are most successful at reaching goals that are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound. Taking seasonal aspects (i.e., less daylight, colder weather, busy events calendar) into account when answering the above questions about a goal will be useful in setting attainable expectations. 

How do we know when it’s time to reevaluate our goals?

Periodically re-evaluating goals is a great way to remember to acknowledge accomplishments and stay in-tune with current priorities. The following are some examples of when it may be useful to re-evaluate your goals:

  • You have met a goal! Now it’s time to celebrate your success and ask yourself, “What’s next?”
  • You are feeling bored and/or not connected to your goal. Ask yourself why you are doing this activity. Do you want to change your goal to be more in line with your desires, or do you just need reconnect with the “why?” associated with the current goal?
  • You experienced a life change that may have shifted your priorities and/or changed some aspect of your SMART goal.

The winter months make it harder for many of us to stick with our exercise routines. What advice do you have for those of us who really like to work out outside?

We recommend a couple of options now that the days are shorter:

Taking a cumulative approach to exercise would allow you to break up your workout into smaller chunks throughout day.  For example, you could exercise for 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes after work, or on a lunch break. This approach will reduce the total amount of time spent working out after work in the dark and may be a more realistic approach to sustain daily exercise when the days are shorter.

Try a shorter workout if you find it frustrating trying to fit in an hour of exercise with less daylight.  Recent research has proven that shorter, more intense workouts are just as beneficial as the traditional one-hour workout. As an example, if you enjoy a one-hour walk near your home, consider a 20-minute walk at a faster pace. Or incorporate routes with hills into your walk to increase the resistance.

For outdoor exercise, what precautions would you advise — especially in rainy and cold weather?

Start with identifying the type of activity you enjoy, and research cold weather gear for that specific activity. Additionally, it is important to find the right layering of clothing. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), typical cold weather clothing consists of three layers: an inner layer, middle layer (primary insulation) and outer layer to allow moisture transfer to the air while repelling wind and rain (100% Nylon and water-resistant).

If exercising outside, take precautionary steps, such as applying bag balm or body glide to prevent blisters to common chafing areas such as inner thighs, underarms, nipples and feet.

Take steps to reduce your risk of developing hypothermia by preventing the accumulation of sweat while exercising. ACSM identifies specific factors that increase the risk of developing hypothermia, which include: immersion, rain, wet clothing, low body fat, older age (>60 years) and hypoglycemia. 

Can we modify outdoor exercises to get the same health benefits indoors?

There are many options for taking some of our favorite outdoor activities indoors during colder months. The following are some ideas for how to move your workouts indoors, both at home and at the gym.

Running: You can use a hallway, garage, kitchen, living room, or local gym for alternative running exercises such as butt kickers, side-to-side shuffle, backward/forward running, jumping jacks and high knees. You can also try interval training on the treadmill to keep indoor running interesting.

Walking: Walk indoors on the treadmill, at a mall, or anywhere you feel comfortable. You can do step-ups at the bottom of a staircase, or even purchase an old school step platform for less than $100.

Strength Training: Bodyweight exercises are a great way to get a strength workout without using any equipment. An exercise band, hand weights, a Swiss ball, and/or TRX/suspension trainers can all be purchased and used at home, as well. You can also find credible workout videos (DVD/online) that are safe and evidence-based. Another option: Incorporate exercise while doing chores, such as calf raises while washing dishes or doing planks while watching TV (during commercials).

Biking: Purchasing a bike trainer is an option for people who want to ride indoors, but would rather not be in the gym. Trainers can cost anywhere between $100-400 and can be set up in your garage or inside your house. Additional equipment such as a mat, fan, towel, etc. also may be useful. Cycling classes can also be a fun and worthwhile way to stay in biking shape during the winter.

Try a new activity: Winter may also be a good time to try something new! Other options for indoor activities include, but are not limited to:

  • Indoor rock climbing
  • Gaming system, like the Wii (dance games, etc.)
  • Classes at the gym (HIP and Cardinal Rec both offer a breadth of fitness classes for Stanford employees)
  • Check with your local gym for indoor versions of your outdoor activity, like basketball or soccer.

About the authors

Marlon John, BS, CPT: BeWell Coach
Cecille Tabernero, BS, CPT: BeWell Health Screening Manager
Ashley Gephart, MA, CPT: BeWell Coach
Nathan McKenzie, MPH, CPT: BeWell Coach