Does this sound like you? During the summer, you're a workout fiend, perhaps swimming, running, hiking under the warm sun, keeping that body healthy and in ship -- or beach -- shape. Or maybe you're a little less vigilant, but you still like to hit the gym every other day.
Then, it happens: daylight-saving time ends, and you find it hard to get out of bed and by nightfall, you're more interested in curling up with a book than running.
The winter months can be brutal for some people's fitness routines, says Bradley Cardinal, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Oregon State University. He once 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 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-lover'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 Gainesville showed that people 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.
So, backsliding doesn't have to spell the end of hard-earned exercise accomplishments. And remember to call on a friend, perhaps make a promise to each other to at least work out together twice a week. Making a commitment that affects another person's health as well as your own may make you more likely to get off the couch, and get with the program.