Hibernation and Fitness

Health & Wellness

Recently we had a near repeat of the 2014 Arctic Vortex. January 2018 wasn’t just cold in the Carolinas, it was bone chillingly frigid for many days on end. I still managed to workout.

I know many of you are probably groaning and rolling your eyes, but I have some tips to help you stay fit when it’s too cold to do anything but sit still and eat rich, hot, comforting foods. Before I continue, let me just say how natural it is to feel disheartened about exercise when it’s cold and dark. It actually seems like the worst time of year to make fitness resolutions.

Some people experience a form of “hibernation” where the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to dampen activity in general. Often these are the people who also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, which I discussed in a past column recently. But other people are susceptible to this general winter malaise as well.

The result of this reaction to winter is a slower heart rate, lower body temperature, slower metabolism, and a desire to sleep and snuggle (but not necessarily to have sex). Yet you may find yourself craving food. When you’re less active, why would you want to eat more?

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Scientists in Russia believe that taken altogether, these symptoms are hibernation-like responses that conserve and store energy. All of this would have been very helpful to our ancestors when there were food shortages for months at a time. You may find that you get softer during the winter, even if you specifically try not to. Winter is “bulking season‚“ for a reason (if you bother with that: I prefer to remain in cutting season all year). Again, if your parasympathetic system is slowing your metabolism down, it is simply harder all around to stay energized enough to burn the calories.

I have noticed first hand that I simply cannot workout at the same intensity during winter. Neither can many of my clients. It isn’t from lack of tying, so I suspect there’s more to subtle “human hibernation,” than hard science currently confirms. If metabolism is lower, then oxygen usage is lowered as well. Without enough oxygen, you simply cannot burn enough energy to work at your peak. I also find that it becomes harder to take deep breaths while exercising in the winter, regardless of whether I’m outside or inside. I wonder if that too is part of the winding down process?

3 Tips to Maintain Your Beach Body During Hibernation Season

1. Food has to come first, because the extent of your fitness results are subject specifically to the quality of your diet. I have been binging really hard on sugar this particular holiday season and transition into the new year. This has happened even more than usual, and I attribute it specifically to the deep, prolonged freeze.

I can no longer avoid the temptation of calorically dense foods like bread, soft cheeses, candy, and heavy sauces. My suggestion to you: Don’t even bring these items into your home. It isn’t by willpower that I have managed to keep the winter pounds off. I cannot give myself that much credit. I had to banish certain foods from my presence. Consider doing that in your space, too.

2. Sticking to food just a moment: There are many ingredients that can boost your metabolism and energy. Putting fresh squeezed lemon into your water can help you burn some extra calories. Make sure it’s fresh squeezed!

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Spices that can help increase metabolism include cinnamon, ginger, dried mustard, chili powder, cayenne and hot pepper. The peppers in particular contain capsaicin, which stimulates the mitochondria in muscle cells to burn through more energy, which generates heat, and increases your daily burn.

Green tea can help you burn up to 100 extra calories per day. Obviously you don’t want to reverse that advantage by taking in extra calories with sugar. This would be an excellent way to get a double whammy by putting some of your fresh squeezed lemon into each steaming cup.

3. Have you made exercise resolutions for 2018? Awesome! Are you struggling to stay motivated, because of the weather and/or hibernation? You don’t have to brave the elements and go to the gym. To burn as many calories as possible when you exercise at home with limited or no equipment, consider focusing on compound movements, core work, and a particular focus on the legs.

The major compound movements are chest press, back row, pullups, squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses. The muscles in your legs are big and greedy. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least do some air squats, walking lunges, jumping jacks, and other exercises that get your lower body engaged. One reason leg day is so arduous is because of all the blood, oxygen, and nutrients your legs use when you work them.

info: Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.

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