Feature Archive

Beat the Lazy Season

Stay on Track

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Oct. 11, 2001 -- In the summer of 1999, Liz Chandler was "a workout fiend." She got up to go swimming three to four times a week, took yoga classes on two mornings in between, and ran in the evenings with her husband. Occasionally, they'd hike on the weekends, too. Chandler, a 41-year-old stylist for commercial photography, felt so fit she was contemplating running a marathon. But then, when daylight saving ended, she found it hard to get out of bed and by nightfall, she was more interested in curling up with a book than running. "And it wasn't just me," says Chandler. "I noticed my husband wasn't making it to the gym before work like he used to."

The winter months can be brutal for some people's fitness routines, says Bradley Cardinal, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Oregon State University. He recently prepared a case study of a man in his mid 30s who lives in the northern U.S. Each year, the man was active from July through November, but then found his activity level would drop off for the rest of the year. While Cardinal cautions against reading too much from the study of one person, he believes that most people's activity levels fluctuate, largely because of environmental factors. "It's a lot easier to get out and exercise when the weather is warm," he says.

Working Through Colder Weather

If you're an outdoor exerciser who has slacked off in the past when the temperature dropped, you may not have been giving yourself enough time to acclimate. "When people who live in Washington, D.C., go on vacation to Florida in the winter, it's harder for them to exercise because they're not used to the heat," says Richard Cotton, PhD, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. "And the reverse is true, too. It takes time to get used to different temperatures, no matter if you're going from hot to cold or vice versa."

To acclimate, of course, you'll have to keep working out through the cold -- a bit of a Catch-22. It will be easier to make yourself go outside, though, says Cotton, if you warm up inside first. "Take five to 10 minutes and do some low level aerobic exercise like jogging in place or doing jumping jacks," he advises. "That way, when you step outside, you'll already be warm." Dressing properly can also help. Wear layers so that you can peel them off as your body temperature increases.

Think of Gym Alternatives

Some people, like Chandler's husband, are dedicated gym-goers, and they shouldn't be affected much by the weather. However, the lingering darkness in the morning and the early evenings can sap even the hardiest gym-bunny's motivation to hit the health club. If that's your problem, you may need a contingency plan. Cardinal himself has exercise equipment at home -- a stair climber, stationary bike, and exercise videos that he rotates through -- to use when it's hard to get outdoors or to the gym. If you do exercise at home, though, do whatever you can to make it entertaining, says Cotton. You might, for instance, place a TV in front of a home treadmill so you don't get too bored.

This is the time, too, to call on your friends. Even if you usually exercise alone, you may need someone to help keep you motivated. Many studies have shown that social support helps keep people active, says James F. Sallis, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies exercise motivation. Reconfiguring your schedule is another possible solution. If cold and darkness discourages you from morning exercise, try to take a brisk walk or an exercise class during your lunch hour.

And if You Backslide ...

Sometimes there is no getting around the environmental barriers that hinder exercise, and you may have to settle for less. "If you're going to slip, try to at least do aerobic exercise three times a week," says Cotton. "If you think about exercising on one of the weekdays, say, Wednesday, then on both days over the weekend, that's really not too hard."

And studies show that decreasing the number of days you exercise doesn't hurt if you maintain the same intensity and time. For instance, in the early 1980s, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago had 12 exercisers run and cycle for 40 minutes a day, six days a week, at a moderately high intensity. After 10 weeks, their regimens were reduced to either two or four days, though they maintained the same pace and total duration. When tested 15 weeks later, all of the exercisers maintained the same aerobic capacity as when they were exercising six days.

If you weight train, you may be able to cut back with little repercussion, too. In a study published in the December 1992 issue of Spine, researchers at the University of Florida in Gainsville showed that subjects who had been lifting weights one to three times a week and cut back to once every two or even four weeks (without changing the amount of exercise per session), showed no significant decrease in strength for at least 12 weeks.

Like a lot of workout fiends, Chandler was surprised -- and relieved -- to learn that backsliding doesn't have to spell the end of hard-earned exercise accomplishments. "When I slack off, I assume that getting back into it is going to be painful," she says. "That attitude makes me put off the inevitable even longer -- at which point I probably do lose fitness." Still, this year she plans to try harder to stay on track. "I've already started hiking twice a week with a friend and we've made a commitment not to cancel on each other," says Chandler, "At the very least, I know I'll keep that up."

Daryn Eller is a freelance writer in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Health, Fitness, and many other publications.

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