Guest Post: How and Why Winter Workouts Work

I’m delighted to share a guest post today from Baltimore-based personal trainer and running coach John Shafer, who also happens to be my husband. Enjoy!-LS

John Shafer getting a low impact workout while pup Osita gets a high impact workout!

John Shafer getting a low impact workout while pup Osita gets a high impact workout!

Howling winds, snowfall and frigid temperatures have managed to put a damper on many well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions already. But these conditions shouldn’t hinder you! They can actually help you achieve your goals more quickly if you embrace them rather than hide indoors.

Our bodies are always trying to maintain homeostasis, the maintenance of equilibrium. Practically, that means when external variables like temperature change in our environment, the body goes to work making sure that we stay in our physiological sweet spot.

The primary point of contention during our cold weather workouts is maintaining an internal body temperature of 98.6 degrees. When it gets below 40 degrees outside, the heart rate speeds up pumping more oxygen rich blood to our muscles and organs, our blood vessels constrict so that the flow of warm blood is diverted to where it’s needed as opposed to close to the surface of the skin where it can’t maintain its temperature.

This inner struggle to maintain the body’s ability to function burns calories at a higher rate than exercising in ideal conditions and gives us more bang for our buck on workouts.

Besides cranking up our organs at a more intense rate, cold weather training also changes the way that we burn fat for energy. “White” fat in excess is bad. If you can pinch several inches around your mid-section, you have excess subcutaneous white fat. The belly and thigh area is where this stuff likes to hang out…literally. An excess also indicates that you probably have your fair share of visceral white fat too—the fat that surrounds your organs and takes years off of many people’s lives. Studies have shown that as a direct result of exercising in the cold elements our bodies convert the less effective “white” fat into “beige” fat as a survival adaptation. “Beige” fat burns hotter and more efficiently so our bodies convert. Darwin would be proud.

A word of caution: If you have not been cleared to exercise vigorously due to a heart condition or poor circulation, or if you don’t exercise regularly, working out in challenging conditions could exacerbate problems (or create new one). Get clearance from you doctor if you fall in any of these categories.

Luckily some of the tasks that are laid at our feet by mother nature qualify as both a to do list item and a golden opportunity to slip in some training:

1. Shoveling snow: Working at a measured, conservative pace one can hope to burn more than 500 calories per hour. The strength training component is also noteworthy. Proper shoveling requires pushing, pulling and twisting movements so our muscles get a well-balanced, all-hands-on-deck workout. Remember to keep your abs engaged so that your back doesn’t try to do the lion’s share and become a casualty. You’ll be left with clear sidewalks and an intense calorie burn. Got a short walk? Be a good neighbor and reap more training benefits and shovel your neighbor’s walk, too!

2. Run or hike the great outdoors: Many relegate themselves to treadmills throughout the winter for their cardio component. Attacking the great outdoors, however, will yield much more impressive results with the body’s struggle for homeostasis coupled with our body’s desire to use fat more efficiently. As an added bonus, the terrain which we’ll have to take on, in many cases, will elevate our fitness level quicker. The body works exponentially harder traipsing through snowy conditions or challenging winds instead of walking on a conveyor belt in a climate controlled area.

3. And of course there are the usual cold weather exercise suspects:

-Cross country skiers are some of the fittest humans alive. This could be why you don’t know many hopelessly out of shape Norwegians.

-Ice skating, snowboarding and snow shoeing provide a great training effect (without the drudgery of cross country shuffling).

-Downhill skiing while not delivering the same calorie burning oomph is plenty of fun.


There’s a caveat here: Sometimes our body’s drive to restore equilibrium backfires. Imagine you’ve worked out intensely for one hour in thirty-degree temperatures and then you head back inside where it’s warm. You toast up a giant muffin and drink a hot chocolate, followed by a plate of cheese and crackers and anything else that isn’t nailed down. This is an example of our survival instinct kicking in and trying to replace those burned calories immediately. You most certainly SHOULD replace some of that expended energy, but you should replace it wisely.

We can all benefit greatly from getting out in those winter elements and embracing them! As an added bonus staying active through the winter makes the season fly by, allowing us to be fitter people when spring reappears.


John Shafer is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, supporting clients at ACAC Timonium and coaching at Charm City Run since 2007. He began running as a means to replace bad habits with healthier ones, and now he's a Boston Qualifier with a long list of races under his belt. Interesting fact about John: He's an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic, but that does not slow him down! Email John at