Six ways to boost your metabolism when cold weather cuts into your exercise routine

Guest post by John Turrell, Wellness Coordinator, Greater Portland Branch, YMCA of Southern Maine.  

Icy cold weather. It can make it difficult to even participate in some normal outdoor activities that you might be doing during the winter months— like running, walking, snowshoeing, hiking and cross-country skiing.

Consequently, we end up sitting more and exercising less, which causes our resting metabolic rate (RMR) to slow down. This leads to burning fewer calories and gaining weight. Boo!

Boost your metabolism

I have identified six simple strategies that can stoke your calorie-burning fire even in the winter.

1.) Hit the gym (or the Y) A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 19 percent of women weight train twice a week or more. Starting at around age 35, women lose 5 to 10 percent of their lean muscle mass per decade. So a woman at 45, even if she weighs the same as she did at 35, would have lost about eight pounds of muscle and replaced it with eight pounds of fat. That change leads to a 48-calorie-a-day decrease in her resting metabolic rate. This can add up to about five pounds of fat gained a year. This also applies to men, though not quite as rapidly.

So along with regular cardio sessions, and especially cardio intervals, we should strength train ideally three times per week in a gym. Strength training will rebuild the muscle we naturally lose as we age and when we are inactive during the winter, keep our metabolism revved up.

2.) Do not crash diet A crash diet is when you fast, follow a restrictive eating program or skip meals. The problem is that when you do not eat enough, your body goes into starvation mode and your metabolic rate decreases. When you do not eat enough, you lose muscle, not fat, because your body will break down its own muscle tissue to get the amino acids it needs for essential protein and fats.

Even though we usually tend to eat more when we sit more during the winter, we should not try to crash diet to make up for overeating. Instead, keep the metabolism humming by eating plenty of low-fat and nutritious food, and be mindful of our portions.

3.) Don’t party too hard Many studies have found that people who have occasional bouts of heavy drinking like during football games have excessive abdominal fat. The liver normally breaks down stored fat for energy, but with heavy alcohol intake, our body prioritizes the detoxification of the alcohol over the metabolism of fat. The alcohol is burned and the fat stays. More sitting and heavy drinking, even occasionally, during the winter will rapidly add fat. Sip no more than one drink a day, and, ideally, make it a glass of red wine.

4.) Cut back on sugar The average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar a year! This equals about 13 teaspoons per day! It’s not just sugar but simple carbohydrates of all sorts, such as chips, white bread, crackers, and pasta, that upsets our metabolism. Insulin secreted from the pancreas is needed to remove all this sugar, or glucose, from our blood and move it to our muscle cells for energy production. As people age or gain weight, especially in the abdomen, the body loses sensitivity to insulin, and glucose is unable to enter the muscle cells. The glucose is instead stored as fat.

The American Heart Association suggests that we limit added sugars to no more than about 100 calories, or the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar, a day. This is not easy to determine because food labels in processed foods do not make a distinction between added and natural sugar. Try to control this problem by limiting processed food consumption and checking the ingredients list for any word ending in “ose” (including dextrose, sucrose, maltose, and lactose), as well as honey, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrates. We want these sugars to be at the bottom of the list of ingredients.

5.) Get more sleep According to recent data, nearly 30 percent of adults report sleeping six or fewer hours a night. This is a serious problem when trying to lose, or not gain, weight. This sleep deprivation interferes with our body’s ability to metabolize food and causes us to be hungrier.

Although eight hours of sleep is ideal, seven is enough to ward off weight gain and enhance overall health. Try to turn in and wake up at the same time every day to reinforce a consistent sleep rhythm and remind the brain when to release sleep and wake hormones.

6.)  Reduce stress Stress affects not only our mental health but also our metabolism. A study from Rutgers University found that chronic stress leads women to reach for high-sugar, high-fat comfort foods, and those who were the most frazzled had more abdominal fat. Chronic stress causes cortisol secretion, which prompts fat in the body to be relocated and deposited deep in the abdomen. This visceral fat is the key to the metabolic slowing that occurs with age, weight gain, and hormonal changes.

Take a good look at the stressors in your life. We need to try to minimize them as much as possible. Also, practice stress-management techniques, like regular exercise and relaxation techniques, such as mindful breathing, meditation, and yoga. The more relaxed we are, the better everything in our life will function, including our metabolism.

The winter months are quiet times. It is a good time to work on being mindful and to focus on different aspects of our daily lives that we can adjust to improve our health.

What do you do for exercise during the cold winter months?

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.