Benefits of Cold Weather Training in Winter
As winter settles in, it can feel more and more difficult to push yourself out the door for some exercise.
However, new study suggests exercising in the cold could increase insulin sensitivity, reduce risk of Type II Diabetes. A recent study suggests that the physiological benefits of exercising in the cold might give you greater returns than your warmer weather workouts—which is great news if you need a little extra motivation to get out there.
To understand why cold-weather workouts are big boons to fitness, we first need to understand insulin and body fat. Insulin is a hormone produced in your pancreas that facilitates the use of glucose (sugar) for energy; following a big meal and the spike in blood sugar that comes with it, the pancreas will typically produce more insulin to help shuttle glucose from your blood to your cells to be used as energy. When your body begins to lose some of its sensitivity to insulin, your blood sugar levels skyrocket, which leads to hyperglycemia, a symptom of Type I and Type II Diabetes.
Insulin sensitivity dictates how well you can process fuel, regardless of your diabetic status, so it’s also an important thing for athletes to be aware of. What makes your body resistant to insulin? There are a number of factors, but the leading one is increased storage of fat.
When it comes to fat, your body has two types; white and brown. White fat is the one we typically think of—it sits below our skin, stores extra energy, keeps us insulated, and sometimes makes our pants fit tighter than we’d like. It also decreases our insulin sensitivity, and contributes to Type II Diabetes. Brown fat is the lesser-known one; it collects around the neck and upper back, and helps burn calories and maintain body temperature. Brown fat also helps increase insulin sensitivity.
Traditionally, the approach for improving (i.e. increasing) insulin sensitivity has been to simply lose weight: Either burn more energy or take in less, and you’ll decrease your body mass and increase your insulin sensitivity—voilà! But given the obesity epidemic in the US, the math may not be so simple. In fact, a 2004 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that jogging the equivalent of 20 miles per week only resulted in an average weight loss of 7.72lbs after eight months of training.
Here’s where it gets cool: new research on cold therapy interventions has shown that white fat can take on the characteristics of brown fat when you exercise in lower temps, resulting in improved insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism. While the exact pathways are unknown, the combination of cold exposure and exercise appear to improve the turnover of fat in the liver and skeletal muscle, as well as mitochondrial function. Diabetologia states, “this may lead to improvement in insulin sensitivity, independent of change in body weight.”
The research also suggests that now would be a good time to start reconsidering how our bodies react to colder temperatures. Brian Mackenzie, a world-renowned human performance specialist, adds that “cold adaptation is probably one of the more important things we’ve lost” as a species over time. With all the creature comforts of heaters and warmer clothing, this isn’t too surprising, but it’s important not to go into full hibernation mode all winter. “Cold training helps capillarization”—which improves blood flow and muscle function—”much like aerobic training, which is important for performance, immune function, and overall well-being,” says Mackenzie.
Still cringing at the thought of chilly base miles? A 2016 meta-analysis in Diabetologia states that simply “breaking sedentary time can have major effects on insulin sensitivity and metabolic profile, suggesting that even small increases in physical activity levels can have a major impact on health.”
So break up your work day with a brisk lunch walk, or go build a snowman with your kids—you can enjoy the cold this winter knowing it’s helping you maintain your health and improve insulin sensitivity in the process.