When the days are colder and nighttime falls sooner, it becomes more and more difficult to find the energy to stay active. Getting less physical activity in the winter months is a common trend, as the season’s nature calls for cozying up with a blanket on the couch to warm up from the cold. Furthermore, the decreased daylight contributes to an increased release of melatonin, the hormone responsible for making us sleepy¹.
So, it’s simply natural for us to have less energy at this time of year. But what are the risks of engaging in more sedentary behavior? If we exercise regularly, we should be “in the clear,” right?
Well, perhaps not necessarily. Evidence suggests that sedentary behavior is associated with an increased risk in at least 35 chronic conditions, including dementia². The latest research has suggested that even regular exercise may not be enough to compensate the risks of too much sedentary behavior over time.
In one study, participants who engaged in vigorous physical activity for one hour a day, but spent longer time sitting, did not demonstrate healthier cholesterol and blood sugar levels than participants who engaged in only moderate physical activity but spent less time sitting³. This suggests that sedentary behavior is a risk factor for disease on its own.
How is sedentary behavior linked to dementia? By posing as a risk factor for chronic issues such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and others, sedentary behavior increases our risk for Alzheimer’s.
For example, sedentary behavior affects our body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that helps us control blood sugar. Decreased sensitivity to insulin increases our risk for type 2 diabetes. This relates to dementia and AD, as high blood sugar can be harmful to the brain and cause inflammation⁴. Additionally, spiked blood sugar due to type 2 diabetes can increase our risk of heart disease and stroke, which may damage blood vessels in the brain and contribute to AD⁴.
Recent studies also suggest that sedentary behavior may be linked to oxidative stress and inflammation². Less physical activity may affect telomeres—protective regions of DNA in our chromosomes. When telomeres are shortened by causes such as oxidative stress and inflammation, we may increase our risk of diseases associated with age, such as dementia². Thus, scientists speculate there might be a threshold of daily activity needed to reduce the impact of aging on telomere length².
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week for substantial health benefits. If you get less than this, however, some activity is better than no activity. If you meet or exceed this recommendation, then you are on the right track, as long as you are engaging in safe activity.
And though a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity exercise may be preferred for reduction of our risk, engaging in more activity overall can still lead to big impact.
This winter season, try some tips below to move more throughout your day at home, at work, and in between.
1. Do extra housework
Doing daily chores around the house can almost turn into a workout! Get some steps in by mopping floors, vacuuming, doing laundry, and more. Cleaning the house can help expend a couple hundred calories, depending on the duration and intensity.
Around the holidays is also the perfect time to donate to your local charity. Clean out your closet or declutter your storage room—you’ll burn some calories for a good cause.
2. Shovel snow
Depending on the recent weather in your region, you may still be raking leaves or already needing to shovel snow. Either way, you can get an arm pump by cleaning up your yard! Remember to bundle up with warm boots, plenty of layers, a pair of gloves, and a good hat. Wearing the right gear will help you endure the cold weather for a longer amount of time than you think.
3. Hit the mall
Though convenient, online shopping significantly lessens the amount of physical activity we can get from traditional shopping. If you have access to shopping centers, try and make the effort to clear your Christmas gift list there instead of on the web.
In addition, invite a friend or family member to join you, too! This way, you’ll get to spend some quality time together, in addition to adding more steps to your day.
When you visit the shops, park your car further away from the building. This is one of the simplest ways to get more activity, especially when every move counts.
Lastly, use the stairs when possible, reserving the escalators and elevators for those who actually need them.
4. Try a new fitness class
Step out of your comfort zone and try a mode of exercise you’ve never done before. With group fitness, there’s a class for every skill level and preference.
Release some stress with yoga, or take out some frustration with kickboxing. Tone up your legs with a spin class, or work on strength by attending a bootcamp.
And don’t forget to invite a workout partner—one of the highlights of group fitness is building a camaraderie while pushing each other to work hard. Visit your local fitness facility for information on single class prices and monthly rates!
5. Go ice skating
Ice skating is a popular activity at this time of year, and many cities have facilities that offer good deals on skate rentals and short lessons as well! Get the family together to participate in this traditional winter activity—and remember to dress warm if the rink is outdoors.
6. Find an indoor pool
A dip in the pool doesn’t have to be exclusive to summertime. Look to your local recreation and fitness center for an indoor pool to reap the benefits of being in the water.
Swimming involves full body movements without applying extreme pressure on the joints, so it’s a safe activity for all physical fitness levels. Additionally, swimming can help relieve stress and boost energy levels, which are important to helping you get through the holidays!
7. Try an at-home workout
No equipment? No problem! With your own bodyweight and some open space, you can torch just as many calories as you would in a gym.
Have you ever looked to YouTube for at-home workouts? Many accounts will post videos you can follow along in real time, which helps boost motivation and provides for you a visual with proper form. Body Project, FitnessBlender, and POPSUGAR Fitness are some of our favorite accounts—offering a variety of different workouts, with and without equipment.
In addition to YouTube videos, smartphone apps can also be helpful at encouraging physical activity. Some of the most popular apps include MyFitnessPal, JEFITT Workout, Yoga Studio, and more.
8. Break-up your work day
Do you work a sedentary job? The number of Americans who spend most of their day sitting at work has increased dramatically in the last couple decades, and it’s putting us at risk.
To combat this issue, try to incorporate some breaks into your sitting time. Set a timer for 20 to 30 minutes and take a moment to move for 2 minutes. This movement can be anything—walk up and down the stairs, do some calf raises, circle your arms, or even use your chair to perform some squats.
Consider a standing desk, which can help you burn more calories than you would sitting at a traditional workspace. Many of these desks can be adjusted for height, so you can alternate between sitting and standing periods. Proper adjustments should still be considered, though, for safe ergonomics. Check out this guide for tips on maintaining good posture at your work desk.
Additionally, make walking meetings the new norm. In addition to discussing important business, you can also take the meeting outside, if possible, to take in some fresh air as well. Keep a pair of good walking shoes at work for these purposes!
9. Move during a commercial break
Just as we advise you break-up your work day, do so when you watch your favorite show. Get up and pace around your living room, or go up and down some stairs if you have them. You can even do some exercises, switching moves each time a commercial ends.
If you watch programming on apps such as Netflix or Hulu, which have less advertisements, set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes, getting up and moving for at least 2 minutes. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to stay in your seat.
10. Set a step goal
Step-tracking devices have become very popular recently, and you may have one of your own already (such as a FitBit). Though the generic number of steps we may have been told to aim for is 10,000 steps, this number is different for everyone.
Before setting a step goal, track how many steps you get daily with your current activity level for up to a week. After you’ve averaged this number, aim to take about 10 percent more steps each day for the following week.
Add these extra steps by following some of the guidelines above—walk during your work break, take the stairs, or tidy-up the house. Do some grocery shopping, pace while talking on the phone, or go for a stroll in the park (bundling up in warm clothes, of course).
There’s no right or wrong way to increase your activity level, as long as it is safe and enjoyable for you.
1. Wehr, T. Melatonin and seasonal rhythms. 1997. Journal of biological rhythms, 12(6), pp. 518-527. doi: 10.1177/074873049701200605
2. Booth, F.W., Du, M., Kraus, W.E., Levine, J.A., & Thyfault, J.P. Physiology of sedentary behavior and its relationship to health outcomes. 2015. Med sci sports exerc, 47(6), pp. 1301-1305. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000518
3. Bremers, M.A. et al. Minimal intensity physical activity (Standing and Walking) of Longer Duration Improves Insulin Action and Plasma Lipids More than Shorter Periods of Moderate to Vigorous Exercise (Cycling) in Sedentary Subjects When Energy Expenditure Is Comparable. 2013. PLOS ONE, 8(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055542
4. Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. 2007. Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/national/documents/latino_brochure_diabetes.pdf