SRU exercise science professors provide tips for staying active during the winter
Exercising outside during the winter can be a great way to get the prescribed 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity recommended by Slippery Rock University professors of exercise science.
Feb. 3, 2022
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — People aren't as active in the winter months compared to other times during the year, unless they are sticking to some sort of New Year's resolution to exercise more. Let's face it, most people are likely to stay in bed, at their desk or to search for a closer parking spot than walk outside any more than they have to when there are cold temperatures and snowy conditions outside. Professors in Slippery Rock University's Exercise and Rehabilitative Sciences Department recognize these seasonal effects to physical activity and have a prescription for people seeking the minimum dosage of exercise.
"If somebody's living a sedentary lifestyle, we suggest starting small and continuing to improve so that you can start to see the benefits to your health," said Joy Urda, associate professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences. "But ideally, we recommend people getting 150 minutes of exercise per week, which can be accumulated throughout the week in 20- or 30-minute bouts of aerobic activity."
Urda is a co-adviser and a committee member for SRU's Exercise is Medicine on Campus program, which is part of a nationwide initiative for universities and colleges to promote physical activity as a vital sign of health. Students are referred from the Student Health Center to the program and they work with exercise science majors to set goals to increase their physical activity.
According to Urda, lack of physical activity is a major contributor to the development of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer, and it is linked with conditions like obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
"Sedentary behavior is not maintaining the status quo: the more sedentary you are, the more at-risk you are for many diseases and conditions," Urda said. "We recommend that you get up and move at least once every half hour, just to break up that sedentary time."
But does getting up to walk to the copier machine down the hall or to your car parked across campus count toward your minimum weekly dosage of aerobic activity? Well, not exactly. It depends on what your body is used to.
"You have to do something that increases your heart rate to improve your cardiovascular health," Urda said. "We would recommend people achieving a moderate level of intensity. That means you are at a point where your breathing starts to increase, and a way to test that is you might still be able to talk comfortably but you can't sing. We wouldn't want you to be gasping for air for a long period of time."
Still, any movement or physical activity, whether it's considered aerobic exercise or not, has health benefits.
"Anything that you do to get up and move is going to add cumulatively to help improve your health," Urda said. "It can help you feel less lethargic, improve your mood, maintain your weight, help your stress levels, all of those things are going to be improved when you can break up that sedentary time and change your environment."
Going to a gym to exercise or following a workout video from your basement are options during the winter months, but facilitators of SRU's EIM-OC program suggest going outside if you can.
"Even though it's gloomy outside, you're still getting fresh air and not sitting and looking at your computer screen," said Megan Miller, a senior exercise science major from Burghill, Ohio, who will be working with students referred to the EIM-OC program this semester. "Going outside has positive effects for your mental health, and if you do go outside, go with a partner so it's a little bit more enjoyable. And if it's cold and wear lots of clothes."
Although people must be aware of hypothermia, which occurs when someone's body temperature dips below 95-degrees Fahrenheit, the body produces heat when you exercise.
Steve Verba, associate professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences, said there's no specific temperature for when it's too cold to exercise outside, but one must be sensible and dress appropriately.
"You can push it as much as you're personally comfortable with, but it's important to cover exposed skin and wear face coverings and gloves and to cover your neck," Verba said. "What becomes tricky is when you start sweating, because that's a natural byproduct of exercising and a cooling mechanism for the body. If you're not careful, too much sweat can actually reduce your core temperature when it's cold outside. If you're sweating and your clothes are wet, that's when it can get dangerous, and if it's not addressed, you're at a much higher risk for hypothermia. You should start cooler and warm up as you exercise and not go outside when you're already sweating."
Verba said there are no prescribed number of layers, either, but wools blended with synthetic fibers are great for insulation, and moisture-wicking fabrics are good for staying dry.
Lastly, use caution when shoveling snow as a replacement for exercise. Recently, a local high school football team made national news when their coach told them to shovel snow instead of working out.
"It's certainly a good change to a regular exercise plan because it compasses both the cardiovascular and the muscular system, but it's not a realistic long-term activity and it's actually a very dangerous activity for people who have underlying diseases or high blood pressure," Verba said. "I would say if you exercise regularly and you are in tune with your heart rate and your health, that would make doing activities like shoveling snow much safer and easier."
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