Updated: Feb 15
It’s December, the nights are drawing in and a cold front is sweeping across the country. With winter comes the prospect of cold, dark and frosty mornings, with the only daylight glimpsed out of a window from your desk at work. Understandably, there is a risk that our motivation to keep exercising takes a back seat as work deadlines, Christmas parties, hangovers and winter colds take centre stage.
Yet, all the science points towards exercise being your best bet in getting through the winter months unscathed, and emerging the other side fighting fit ready for the year ahead. It can be really hard to even fathom the joys of getting outside when we're nestled in the warmth of our winter duvet, sheltered from the wind, rain and freezing cold. Yet, exercise has the potential to keep us safe from winter viruses and bolster our mood and metabolism.
Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2010, found that those who exercise at least 5 days a week, are almost 50% less likely to develop a cold or succumb to the flu than those who exercise less than one day per week; and, for those that do succumb, the severity and symptomatology tend to be reduced by more than 30%.
More recently, research from King's college London and the University of Birmingham, found that adults in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, who cycled long distances, boasted health metrics resembling those of a 20 year old. It is generally accepted that immune function decreases by about 1-2% per year from our 20s. What this research showed is that exercising keeps our immune function youthful and better able to tackle disease. The researchers found similar outcomes with muscle mass and strength.
To be classified as a fit, long-distance, cyclist for the purposes of the study, the men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours, while the women had to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours. While we may not be able to dedicate six continuous hours in a day to cycling 100km, when we have work deadlines to contend with, the research shows that even a little exercise can go a long way to bolstering our immune function, mood and productivity at work. The most recent Public Health England guidelines suggest that benefits start to accrue within just a few minutes of movement. Some of the many benefits conferred by exercise include:
Increased metabolism (helping to maintain a healthy weight)
Increased immune function
Lower risk of depression (including Seasonal Affective Disorder)
Reduced levels of anxiety
Lower risk of disease
Increased insulin sensitivity (lowering the risk of type-2 diabetes)
Improved sleep quality and quantity
The benefits of exercise are numerous - far more than I have included above. Yet, despite the abundance of positive reasons to exercise, that doesn't necessarily translate into the motivation required to slip on a pair of running shoes and go for an early morning walk or run. Part of the reason stems from the way in which many of us view exercise: as a means to an end. For example, it might be that we exercise to get healthier or to get beach ready for a holiday. Neither of those goals will necessarily result in us actually enjoying exercise. We'll likely force ourselves out the door to try and meet our lofty goals, while cursing the fact that we are having to do so.
The people who stay motivated long-term, are those that actually enjoy it. If you are already an avid exerciser reading this, you will no doubt resonate with the fact that you enjoy exercise or the immediate rush you get from completing a good exercise session. For those standing on the sidelines wondering how anyone could ever enjoy exercise, it's worth recognising that there are things you will have once detested and which you now enjoy. Conversely, there are likely things that you once enjoyed which you now detest with a vengeance. The crucial thing to recognise is that our emotions are transient and we are able to influence how we feel about something - the first step is self-awareness.
Your subconscious brain (the part that influences whether you enjoy something or not) is heavily influenced by those things that provide instant gratification. The key is to look for things that provide an instant reward, such as a boost to your mood, a lowering of your feelings of anxiety or perhaps increased creativity or productivity. Counterintuitive as it may seem, you should avoid, wherever possible, thinking about longer-term goals (such as looking good or losing weight), as the research suggests that these long-term goals actually undermine our enjoyment of what we are doing in that moment.
When it comes to exercise, can you adopt a more mindful approach to the activities you are undertaking? Can you become aware of the internal narrative you have created around exercise? Does it feel like a chore? The beliefs that you hold at a subconscious level will influence your energy and, consequently, your motivation to persevere when the nights draw in. An easy way to identify your underlying beliefs, is to check the language you use. Do you find yourself saying "I have to"; "I must"; or "I should" as opposed to "I can't wait"; I want to"; or "I am looking forward to".
If you currently dislike exercise, I am not suggesting that you will love it overnight. However, if you adopt a more mindful approach to both the words you use when you talk about exercise, as well as paying greater attention to what you focus your attention on in terms of the things you enjoy about exercise, your feelings and, as a result, your motivation will increase over time. Are there other enjoyable activities that you could combine with exercise e.g. roping in a friend if you enjoy being sociable? It's worth remembering that it's not about sticking to a strict exercise routine. Mix it up. Have fun with it. Take time out throughout your day (yes, that may mean taking an actual lunch break) to soak up the natural daylight, which will also positively influence your circadian rhythm, which may also help improve your sleep.
Finally, if you have not exercised for a while, but are inspired by this article to rekindle your love of movement, it might be worth checking-in with your GP. It's also really important to take it slow. I have lost track of the number of people who adopt an all or nothing approach. They are either all in or all out. As the King's College London study shows, it is the consistency across our lifetime that makes a significant difference to our health, wellbeing and performance. Approach physical activity like a marathon not a sprint. You ideally want your relationship with exercise to be a long and enjoyable one for many, many years to come (especially in winter!).