Why do we tend to gain weight in the winter and how can we avoid it?
During the cold, dark months – usually from November until April – we spend more time indoors. That means we’re less physically active. This December, before winter even started, it was minus 29 degrees Celsius and we had a lot of snow. I only saw a few die-hards cycling and jogging in that bitter cold. Admittedly, I was not one of them.
In the summer and fall, many people like to go out for an evening walk or a bike ride around the neighbourhood. During winter, when it’s dark by 4 pm, we’re more inclined to get cozy in front of the fireplace or watch TV. With TV comes mindless eating and, because we’re not as active, we don’t burn off the extra calories.
When it’s cold, we tend to seek comfort foods to elevate our mood. Summer salads may be replaced with high-caloric, fatty and carb-based meals. December is a month of holiday parties. If we’re not careful, the festive meals, extra alcohol and sweets can add a few pounds.
Fewer hours of sunlight means we get less vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D may contribute to adipose fat storage.
Our moods can also be affected by the weather. We may experience the winter blues and feel listless or disinterested in normal activities. Most people can continue to function well overall, whereas others experience a type of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If you have SAD, you should seek help from a mental health professional.
There are many things we can do to prevent winter weight gain, and to improve our mood and energy levels. One option is to break up winter by taking a vacation to a warm, sunny place, but not everyone has that luxury.
Another option is to embrace winter by engaging in outdoor physical activities on a regular basis. Downhill skiing and snowboarding are fun, but they require a trip to a ski hill. There are many activities you can do that don’t involve the expense of a lift ticket, or the time commitment of a half or full day. Here are some suggestions:
• Ice skate on Ottawa’s famous 7.8-km-long Rideau Canal or at your neighbourhood rink;
• Cross-country ski or snowshoe on a local trail. For example, try the Pinhey Forest Trails (3.2 and 3.5 km), which are located behind the Nepean Sportsplex;
• Run. Ensure you wear highly visible clothing and pay attention to the traffic, especially if you run on the roads.
• Walk. A brisk walk, even a short one, will energize you.
• Toboggan or make a snowman. You don’t have to be a child to enjoy the thrill of tobogganing. Put the concept of play back into your life. Pulling your toboggan back up the hill or rolling a large snowball is an excellent cardiovascular workout.
Whatever activities you choose, dress appropriately. A lot of our body heat escapes through our heads, so wear a hat or hood. Our faces, noses, fingers and toes are most susceptible to the cold. Prevent frostbite with warm or multi-layered socks and mittens and cover as much of your face as possible on very cold days.
If you have a condition that puts you at an increased risk for falling or fractures or you can’t tolerate extreme cold even when dressed accordingly, you may want to avoid outdoor activities during winter. Swim some laps in your community centre’s indoor pool, and enjoy the hot tub or sauna. Do some mall walking with a friend. Practise your golf swing at an indoor driving range. Hit the gym for a solid workout or take a fitness class.
Whatever you do, try to get a few minutes of fresh air and sunshine daily. If that’s not possible, ask your doctor if you could benefit from a light therapy box or vitamin D supplements.
Examine your winter eating habits and identify one or more areas for improvement. If you’ve already gained a few pounds over the holidays, don’t give up. A few dietary changes, such as limiting snacking while watching TV can have a positive impact on your weight.
If you stick to a healthy lifestyle most of the time, you won’t have to buy a whole new wardrobe in the spring. That’s a good thing – unless shopping is your favourite sport.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC.