30 ways to winter-proof your health
Don't retreat under a duvet now the weather has turned. Joel Snape suggests diet and exercise hacks to keep you happy and energised until spring
Winter is the time for comfort," Edith Sitwell once wrote, "for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire." She didn't say much about spin bike intervals or kale smoothies, but perhaps that's not surprising: when the days draw in and the thermostat starts creeping up, hibernating until the summer seems a lot more appealing than staying in shape.
However, abandoning any thoughts of health entirely for three months a year is a mistake. "What works in summer may not work in winter, but keeping fit whatever the season is important," says Tim Hayes, A-list trainer and founder of fitness app Peach. "It'll keep you healthy and productive through the cold season - and it certainly alleviates the stress of needing a quick summer holiday fitness fix when the weather starts to heat up again."
Besides, it doesn't all have to be miserable jogs in the unforgiving darkness at 7am. With the right planning and preparation, you can spend the bleak months indulging in hot baths and roast dinners, and still hit spring in better shape than ever.
1 Get outside
Yes, even when it's brisk. "It's important to get outside in natural sunlight during the winter," says Dr Paul Kelley, a sleep expert at The Open University. "It'll help you sleep well and stay healthy in general. If possible, get outside during the morning. More natural sunlight in the winter is even more important for those of us who suffer the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)." Newly published research from Dr Kelley and his colleagues suggests that sunlight helps to regulate your circadian rhythms, keeping your body's most important systems running smoothly.
2 Cook slow
Yes, the festive sandwiches are already on shelves, but man cannot live on turkey-cranberry concoctions alone. "During the colder months, we tend to want 'comfort' food, but eating healthily can be comforting," says Bradley Simmonds, trainer and author of fitness manual Get It Done. "At this time of year I love using my slow cooker to make warming soups, stews and chilli con carnes. Tossing in some ingredients before you go to work or batch-cooking for the week is a great way to make sure you don't give in to temptation on the way home."
3 Get more vitamin D "One key theory on the roots of SAD is that it's linked to a lack of sunlight and a resultant deficiency in vitamin D," says Bianca Estelle of Vitamin Injections, which runs a SAD treatment course combining vitamin, mineral, enzyme and micronutrient injections. "Vitamin D deficiency treatment has been found to be as effective as light-box therapy for the treatment of SAD. Consider supplementing with zinc, an essential trace element that can help target fatigue and mood-related symptoms of SAD by restoring energy levels."
4 Spice up your drinking
If you're mulling up a vat of wine, toss some fresh cinnamon sticks in - according to research from Wheeling Jesuit University, just a whiff of the stuff is enough to improve cognitive functions and working memory. Oh, and there's also some evidence that cinnamon blunts insulin spikes, so help yourself to an extra glass while you're at it.
5 Light up your house
"One of the biggest contributors to SAD is a lack of exposure to natural light, but there are many ways to maximise it in the home," says Scandinavian interior designer Cat Dal (catdalinteriors.com). "Replace standard light bulbs with full-spectrum light bulbs, which mimic natural daylight in the same way a light therapy box does. Another good trick is to place mirrors opposite windows to help the natural light fill the space. Light plays an important part in melatonin production, and so good lighting can have a positive impact on your sleeping habits."
6 …with the right colours The basic rule is: think blue by day and orange at night. This is particularly important in the context of technology, because modern screens tend to emit blue light, which can suppress the body's natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin. "A lack of daylight in winter when the days are shorter can leave you feeling lethargic, so make it a priority to get out into the daylight when you can," says Jasmine Hemsley, chef, nutritionist and wellness coach. "As the nights get longer, set all your screens - mobile, laptop, tablet - to automatically switch to 'night mode' when the sun sets, so the excess blue light doesn't mess with your sleep." The f.lux app does it automatically, and self-adjusts in synchronisation with the sunset.
7 Embrace Friluftsliv
Friluftsliv is Norwegian for "open-air living" and it's used to describe everything from frosty lunchtime runs to heading for a hut in the hills at the weekend. If you're not quite prepared to go that far, start small. "It's important to get outside as much as you can, but when that just isn't possible, taking a break from screens and sitting by an open window, appreciating the natural beams of the moonlight or a sunset, is very good for improving your mood," says Dal. Even getting a pot plant for your office desk might help - studies suggest they can improve creativity.
8 Eat seasonally "A great way to transition into the colder months while maintaining your health is to eat seasonally," says Jay Bolton, vegan personal trainer and founder of Jay PlantPower. "Try a warm, hearty soup using some fresh in-season veggies, like butternut squash, carrots, parsnips and purple sprouting broccoli - for most of these, it's enough to gently fry them in a pan with some garlic or onions, add some vegetable stock and then blitz them in a blender. You'll benefit from a diverse range of vitamins and phytonutrients and enjoy it more than cramming down a salad in winter."
9 Cycle under a ceiling
Decades ago, treadmills allowed runners to carry on exercising through winter without getting wet and weary; and years ago, the advent of computer-simulated driving ranges meant golfers could swing their arms even when the golf course was too sodden to navigate. Now, cycling is the latest sport to get the indoor treatment. Cycling-friendly gyms offer classes on a type of hi-tech exercise bike that measures the power of every pedal rotation and tracks performance over time. It means cyclists can keep in shape without skidding on an icy countryside lane. And since wind resistance doesn't come into play, there's no need to wear Lycra.
10 Get even colder
In thermostat-cranking weather, turning the temperature down seems counter-intuitive: but it might actually make you feel better in the long run. "The fight-or-flight reaction triggered by cryotherapy releases powerful hormones - including feel-good endorphins and energising adrenalin," explains Nyambe Ikasaya, founder of SaiSei CryoTherapy. "There's evidence to suggest that it can reduce pain and inflammation, as well as improving metabolism, circulation and the immune system." If you're not interested in being blasted with liquid nitrogen vapour - temperatures range from -120C to -160C - switching the water to "really cold" for the last 60 seconds of your morning shower might have a diluted version of the same effect.
11 Learn a skill
Is hitting the treadmill losing its appeal as the nights draw in? "Look for fun activities or courses that keep you coming back," suggests Bolton.
Dancing, for instance, will keep you fit and sociable - you'll improve week on week, you won't want to let your partner down by skipping a session and the feeling of achievement will have you hooked.
Dance classes will challenge your perception of what you can do and because they also require concentration, you get a fix of mindfulness at the same time.
12 Train at home "Fitness apps are a great way to get in a quick 30-minute living room workout before work, during lunchtime or at the end of the day after the kids have gone to sleep," says Hayes. "Alternatively, getting a personal trainer to come to your home at least once a week to supplement your training and keep you accountable is a brilliant way to keep your fitness goals on track. It's always harder to turn your trainer away when they are ringing your front door bell at 6am - you can't just roll over and hit your alarm clock snooze button."
13 Hygge up your yoga
Remember: it's technically possible to do yoga without moving. "For Scandinavians, the idea of hygge is to make the everyday special and the mundane more meaningful," explains yoga teacher Margarita Mitchel Pollock. "It's a concept that works well with yoga - as the long nights draw in, light some candles, put on your cashmere socks and play some soft music. Cocoon yourself in warm layers, wrap yourself in a comfy blanket and practice your pranayama - the art of the breath. Breath in slowly for five seconds, hold and then release slowly for five." The technique will fire up your parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and aiding a whole host of bodily processes.
14 Bathe in minerals
"Epsom salts, otherwise known as magnesium sulphate, have been recognised for centuries as an answer to inflammation, muscle pain and headaches," says Bolton. "It can be taken orally, but two cups in the tub work just as well - your skin will absorb it while you think about other things. You'll finish your bath feeling toasty and ready for the season ahead."
15 Plan for greatness
In snooze-alarm season, mornings can be a bit rushed - so set your goals for the day the night before. "Write down three small tasks you are intent on achieving for the day," says Rhia Clayton, creator of six-week coaching programme Eat Yourself Lean. "These could be healthy habits such as drinking two litres of water or a small work task you've been putting off. Keep them close by - in your phone works fine, but visible on a notepad is better, as it will help direct your focus. Action breeds more action."
16 Drink more water
You might not be sweating, but turning up the heating or putting on an extra jumper comes with its own issues - overheating and dry air means you're still in danger of dehydrating. Without outward signs, it's easy to forget you haven't drunk any water. "If you're prone to forgetting to hydrate, try keeping a bottle of water at your desk - or a Thermos of hot water, maybe with a spot of lemon, a rich source of vitamin C, which has antibacterial, antiviral and immune boosting properties," suggests Hemsley. You'll keep all your body's functions - including your immune system - in full working order.
17 Proceed gingerly "Festive snacking can really upset your digestion," says Hemsley. "If that sounds familiar, nibbling on raw ginger or sipping a strong ginger tea infusion 15 minutes before a meal can help things along - it's a great digestive aid." Evidence also suggests that it can decrease muscle soreness. To make a simple ginger tea, just peel and slice some ginger root (a spoon works best for the first bit), then steep it in boiling water for five minutes.
18 Admire your supper Made your ham 24 hours in advance and cooked it to crispy perfection? Take half a minute to appreciate the results before you tear into them, says Dr Christy Fergusson, currently working with HelloFresh. "Daily creative activities such as cooking are also linked to increased feelings of pride. An effective way of boosting your levels of feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin is to simply pause and take pride in what you have made, but most importantly, setting aside the time to do so. "At the point of plating up give yourself permission to celebrate this success as part of a routine, promoting feelings of happiness."
19 Get your roast on "Studies have shown that most people suffer a natural decrease in the positive mood hormones dopamine and serotonin in the winter - a combination that means we'll be susceptible to sweet cravings and fatigue," says Rhian Stephenson, CEO of indoor cycling specialists Psycle. "It's important to eat foods that will balance blood sugar - including slow- release carbohydrates and naturally sweet foods like roasted vegetables." For a change of pace, roast carrots or cauliflower in turmeric. Curcumin, the active ingredient of the spice, helps to boost your immune system.
20 Front-load your week "If you start the week with a workout you're far more likely to stick to your plans, especially in winter," says Stephenson. "Waiting until the end of the week makes it tough to get your momentum going, and you're more likely to get sidetracked by work and social plans. Make sure you move every day from Monday to Thursday. It doesn't have to be a full hour in the gym; 15 minutes at home or a long walk could be enough." Remember to schedule your workouts, rather than trying to squeeze them in: treat a gym session like a can't-miss meeting and you'll find time.
21 Have a mini-workout planned
There will be times when all your planning goes out the window, be it due to a snowstorm, a flu-stricken teenager or a box of wine. When the gym is firmly off your list of priorities, even a little bit of exercise is better than nothing.
"Make sure you have a preset 15 to 20-minute home workout that can be done without equipment or a lot of space," says yoga instructor Chris Magee. "That way even on the days you can't make it to the gym, you still get to move and make progress towards your goals." For example: warm up, then do three to ten press-ups, then the same number of lunges on each leg, every minute for 10 minutes. Write down your mini-workout now, so that when willpower is at a low ebb you don't need to make any difficult decisions.
22 … but go longer, if you have time
"I recommend doing a long cardio workout - around 90 minutes, if you can manage it - once a week throughout the winter," says Stephenson. "Long cardiovascular sessions have been shown to suppress appetite for longer than shorter sessions and improve mood-related neurotransmitters. Since we're prone to cravings and mood fluctuations in the winter, finding time to fit in longer sessions can be incredibly beneficial." It doesn't have to be hardcore - putting on some boots and going for a tramp in the frost can be more beneficial than grinding out a jog.
23 Tweak your warm-up
Pay more attention to your warm-up to make sure you're physically ready. If you're trekking to the gym through near-Arctic conditions, you'll need to pay more attention to your warm-up to make sure you're physically and mentally ready to train - encouraging blood flow to your extremities and keeping you neurally primed. Thankfully, it doesn't need to take too long. "Mix dynamic stretches with press-ups, lunges and body weight squats - do three or four rounds of each," says trainer Jessica Wolny. "Or for a more intense warm-up, jump on the rowing machine for a moderate-paced 500m - do 10 'power strokes' around the 250m mark to get your heartrate up."
24 Slip-proof your knees Whether you're out jogging in the first frost or soft-shoe shuffling your way to H&M, slippery pavements put you at increased risk of sprains and strains. To guard against these injuries, train the muscles in your feet and ankles to fire properly and help your alignment with the kettlebell handoff. "Hold a light kettlebell in one hand as you balance on one leg, then pass it to the other, keeping your body aligned - don't let your torso wobble from side to side," says Wolny. "Hold the position for three seconds on each side, and do four to six swaps before you change legs."
25 Run with friends
Look at the winter as a chance to ease off - adverse conditions mean there's less pressure to hit race-pace, so you can take advantage by running with friends without trying to hit your personal best 'summer' numbers. "Commit to a training group - a sense of community will hold you accountable and keep you motivated come rain, snow or shine," says Rory Knight, TechnoGym master trainer. "Regardless of your ability, you'll be given the opportunity to train."
26 Break out the turkey early
Eating turkey earlier in the cold season can keep your mood intact, says Dr Fergusson. "It contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is a key building block for our feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Be careful not to overcook it, because it will affect the protein structure of the food and influence how easily it can be digested and assimilated. This will have a knock-on impact on neurotransmitter production." Translation: tossing a few chunks in a stir-fry beats blasting a whole bird in the oven.
27 Get incidental exercise When it's tough to drag yourself out of the house, harness the moments when there's no other option. "Rather than attempt to find an hour in your day to hit the gym, look for times when you are already active and up the demands," says Clayton. "If part of your commute to work involves walking, walk faster. If you're walking your dog or getting out with the buggy, go longer. A fast 20-minute walk burns between 120-200 calories - and shouldn't leave you as hungry for a refeed as a jog."
28 Put the tree up early
When everything's bleak outside, get your hit of greenery wherever you can - studies suggest that strolling through nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and even viewing images of trees on a computer screen can have a similar effect. Or just bury your face in the foliage - in a Japanese study, participants who got a noseful of pine reported greater feelings of relaxation afterwards.
29 Layer up There's no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate equipment. "Layer up by treating yourself to some of the latest breathable, water-wicking fabrics to keep you warm, dry and comfortable throughout your workout," suggests Knight. "Leggings and running tights (accepted attire for gents these days) provide compression, and studies suggest that they can help with circulation, and aid recovery." Investing in a moisture-wicking base layer, gloves and a breathable wind-blocking top will make training less of a battle against the elements. If you're commute-running a small backpack isn't a bad idea so you can shed layers as you warm up. If you're going home in the dark, consider investing in a head torch to steer clear of traffic.
30 …Or don't
File this one under 'Try at your own risk', but there's some evidence that going shirtless in the cold - like "iceman" Wim Hof, who climbed a decent chunk of Everest in his underwear - can be beneficial for fat loss. Cold, according to some research, seems to increase the body's production of brown fat, a tissue that other mammals use to keep themselves warm - and also tweaks insulin production.
In 2015, for instance, eight overweight men suffering from type-two diabetes embarked on a programme of cold exposure, sitting in a cool room in nothing but shorts for six hours a day, for 10 days. At the end of the experiment, the men were clearing sugar from their blood 43pc more efficiently - effectively meaning that the cold exposure helped to control the effects of their diabetes. More research is needed but, in the meantime, if you forget your scarf in the morning, console yourself with the thought that it might be doing you some good.