Great Ways to Work Out Indoors

Don't let winter weather freeze out your workout

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 09, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Just when you've gotten into a regular exercise routine, along comes winter to throw a wrench into things. Instead of looking forward to your jog around the neighborhood, you find yourself wanting to hibernate and drink hot chocolate.

But you can shake off that cold-weather slump. Just think of winter as an opportunity to experiment with some new indoor activities.

"In winter, it's a challenge, let's face it," says fitness consultant Michael Stefano.

When the weather's warm, we mow the lawn and weed the garden, in addition to swimming, playing tennis, or bike riding.

"It's very hard to recreate that (level of activity) in the winter," says Stefano, a former firefighter who is the author of The Firefighter's Workout. "It's cold and dark all the time."

Short and Sweet

When you don't feel much like exercising, don't exercise much: try a mini-workout. Exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time -- like squats, lunges, push-ups (even modified ones), planks, and dips -- let you wrap up your strength workout sooner.

"Three or four moves, three or four days a week," is Stefano's suggestion. He says 15-20 minutes per session is all you really need to stay strong: "Don't worry about how many sets. Make it short, sweet, and intense."

Ray Khan, fitness trainer and owner of Kickfit Athletics Center in Denver, packs a lot into a 20- or 30-minute workout for his clients.

Here's an example of a creative, compact workout (perform each move for 2-3 minutes):

  • Warm up. Put on some music that makes you feel like moving, and dance around the living room.
  • Walk up and down the steps.
  • Do dumbbell curls and presses (if you don't have weights, use full water bottles).
  • Do assisted squats, keeping your back on a fitness ball against the wall or using the back of the couch for support.
  • Shadow box. Khan uses this simple combination: Lift and lower the left leg; jab with the right arm, then the left; then lift and lower the right leg.
  • Fence (you don't even need swords). Pretend you're holding a sword in each hand. Create an X pattern standing still, then moving forward and back.
  • Hop on your exercise bike or treadmill -- or, for something different, use a weighted hula hoop. If you don't have any of those, just go back to dancing.
  • Do abdominal crunches (hold a weighted ball for added resistance).
  • Cool down with James Brown's "I Feel Good" -- or whatever tune makes you feel good.

You've Got Class

Belonging to a gym has many advantages during the winter months. It's a haven from the cold, and has all the equipment you need to keep you from getting bored. There are also exercise classes and personal training consultants to help you stay motivated.

Tony Swain, director of fitness at the East Bank Club in Chicago, says health clubs also offer socialization -- key for an unmotivated exerciser.

"Get involved with a group class," Swain recommends. "The social thing is the biggest thing that keeps people going. People bond with others and create a support network that fosters healthful habits."

Like many gyms, East Bank Club offers a boot camp-style class in which variety is king. The class incorporates aerobic, strength, and even stretching exercises, all in one hour. You don't have time to get bored of one exercise before you're onto the next, Swain says.

If boot camp is not your thing, try yoga, Pilates, a NIA dance class, or even ballroom dancing (East Bank began such a class after the success of the reality show Dancing with the Stars). One big advantage to exercise classes is that so many different types are available, says Ellie Calgaro, assistant director of the Island Sports Center at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

"Variety is going to get you through the winter," she says. "If you do the same thing every day, your body is not only going to get used to it, you'll get bored with it."

If you're really more the outdoor type, Harry Pino, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Obesity Consult Center at Tufts University Center, suggests joining a gym only for the winter months.

"Once spring comes, you can do most of your walking (or whatever you enjoy) outdoors," he says.

Take a Dip

Pino is a big advocate of heated, indoor pools because they are so gentle on the joints, especially for overweight people.

"Pool exercises and aqua aerobics reduce the impact on joints and help improve overall body strength," says Pino. Other benefits include stronger core muscles and improved range of motion.

Both strength training (using the water as resistance) and cardiovascular conditioning (swimming, walking, jogging or treading) can be done in the water. Classes will break it down for you, but if you want to go it alone, it's simple. Alternate swimming, walking, or jogging laps in the pool with leg lifts, bicep curls, squats, or chest presses. (You can use flotation weights or just do the exercises against the resistance of the water, depending on your level of conditioning). In other words, move your gym workout to the water.

"I encourage individuals to try classes offered in the water," says Calgaro. Besides the benefits of joint cushioning, it's another way to add variety and alleviate boredom.

And although water workouts are low-impact, that doesn't mean they're not intense. "They can be full-body, tough workouts," she says.

Marvelous Machines

Of course, treadmills, stationary bicycles, and elliptical machines are great for getting a cardiovascular workout when you don't want to brave the elements. And they don't have to be boring, either.

Pino and Calgaro both recommend doing a circuit-type workout, alternating work on any cardiovascular machine with some strength exercises.

"Warm up with about 2 to 3 minutes on the treadmill," says Pino, "then get off and do a set of 10 to 15 bicep curls. Then go back to the treadmill."

This kind of workout keeps you from getting bored and keeps the heart rate up, he says.

Calgaro recommends a workout that alternates 5 minutes on the elliptical machine, two strength moves, and 1 minute of recovery, repeated six times. For example, alternate 5 minutes on the elliptical machine with 15 assisted squats and 15 crunches or 15 standing lunges. (All these strength moves work several major muscle groups at the same time.)

"It shocks the system and spices up the workout," she says.

If you're usually an outdoor exerciser and want to maintain your fitness level, Pino says, choose indoor activities that mimic your outdoor sports. For example, if you usually walk or ride your bike in a hilly neighborhood, choose the hill profile on the elliptical machine or stationary bicycle.

Or, you might decide to do something entirely different when you move your workout inside.

"Changing activities will allow your body to recover from the hard summer and fall programs but still challenge you," Pino says.

Winter Workout Tips

Our fitness experts offered these tips for winter workouts:

  • Dress in layers, whether you're outside or in the gym. As your body temperature heats up, you can shed layers to keep from overheating.
  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids. This is easy in the summer when it's hot, but in winter, we are consuming more hot coffee, tea, and cocoa and less water, which can lead to dehydration.
  • If you work out at home, make sure the floor you're working on is appropriate, says Calgaro. If you're in the basement on cement, for example, put some kind of mat down to protect your feet, knees, and back.
  • Bring a change of clothes if you're working out at the gym so you don't have to get out in the elements all sweaty and wet.
  • Even when you're exercising at home, find friends or neighbors to exercise with. "Have two to five people come over and do a workout time," says Swain. "You can sit and talk about a book or eat together, why not work out?"
  • Think about ways to incorporate more activity into your daily life. We all tend to move less in the winter.
  • Don't use winter as an excuse to stop exercising. Make working out something you want to do, not something you have to do, says Khan. Add variety to your exercise; change the order of your workout. On the days you just don't feel like exercising, complete just one set of 10 strength exercises (one for each muscle group) and you're done.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Michael Stefano, American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer; author, The Firefighter's Workout Book; owner, BodyBalance Fitness, Long Island, N.Y. Ray Khan, martial artist and fitness trainer; owner, of Kickfit Athletics Center, Denver. Tony Swain, director of fitness, East Bank Club, Chicago. Ellie Calgaro, owner, Fit Beginnings Inc.; assistant director, Island Sports Center, Robert Morris University, Pittsburgh, Pa. Harry Pino, clinical exercise physiologist, Obesity Consult Center, Tufts New England Medical Center.

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