A version of this article was originally published by Mindful.org
When you’re faced with short days and chilly temperatures, you may find the couch calling out to you ever more loudly. Research indicates, though, that hibernating during winter isn’t such a good idea. According to the Mayo Clinic, diminished sunlight can cause levels of serotonin (the feel-good hormone) to drop, exacerbating our low motivation as we feel more tired and hungry. Being sedentary during winter may also trigger those prone to depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The good news? A Harvard Medical School study suggests that exercise boosts both mood and health, especially during the colder, darker days of winter.
If you tend to head for your jammies, not your running shoes, try shifting your attitude. Like a coach, positive attitudes can give you the “go get ’em” encouragement to stay in the game. Here are a few tactics to help keep you—and your attitude—light and bright this winter.
Start Small and Build
Exercising consistently can be challenging.
If you’re ready to take on an active lifestyle, remember that you don’t need to run a marathon tomorrow. You don’t even need to run. Start with a daily walk. Be steady. It’s better to do something active every day—even if it is just a little bit—than nothing at all. Consistent exercise builds momentum, and that builds on itself. At some point, your workout will become a habit and you won’t have to think about it as much. Over time, with commitment and consistency, you’ll increase your laps in the pool, the speed of your walk, and the weight you use for squats. You keep building from wherever you are.
Set an Intention
As you start, take a moment to set a clear intention, which can be like a compass: It directs your mind, keeping you motivated and focused. Strong intentions will bring about strong results. Here are a few examples of powerful intentions:
I am going for a run to clear my head.
During this yoga class I will be kind to myself.
On my walk, I’ll let these prickly thoughts fly.
I’m going swimming to increase my strength.
I won’t judge myself during this weight training class.
Listen to Your Body
Your body speaks to you in the language of sensation. The problem is that we’re often stuck in our heads and don’t hear when our body asks us to change what we’re doing. Start paying attention to the coolness, heat, tingling, or throbbing you feel when you exercise. Doing so will help you tune in to when you need to modify, hold steady, or pick up the intensity.
During your next vigorous workout, notice the sensations: your muscles burning toward the end of your walk or run, the sense of expansion during a deep yoga pose, or the fire in your legs during those last few squats. Your body is getting stronger. There’s also the sensation that is not so sweet: It can be a sharp pain or, conversely, numbness. These are signals that you’re overtaxing your body and need to back off or modify what you are doing. To know the difference, you’ll need to pay attention. While it can be empowering to push past our limitations, it’s equally important to be mindful of them.
Be Kind, Light, and Non-Judgy
Nike has been telling us for a few decades to “Just Do It.” We could add, “But be nice about it.” You don’t have to beat yourself up to get moving every day. Try talking to yourself as a supportive soccer coach would talk to a first-grader. Maintain a cheerful “You’ve got this” attitude, and give yourself a pat on the back when your workout is over.
Being too serious about exercising takes the joy out of movement.
Being too serious about exercising takes the joy out of movement. If you can keep your sense of humor about the whole thing, you may find yourself going longer and harder. Laugh at your mistakes. Pause to take in the view. Cheer yourself on: “I think I can, I think I can.” Be flexible with your schedule. While exercising daily sounds good, schedules can change on a dime. The last thing you need is to get stressed about exercising. The goal is to be consistent, not a slave to your workout schedule.
Your body feels different from day to day. Some days you may rock and roll, other days you may only crawl. Acknowledge your highs and lows. If you can, commit to moving a little bit. This is how you build consistency and momentum. Negative self-talk will just drain your energy. Start where you are. Let go of what you can’t do. Embrace what you can.
Nike has been telling us for a few decades to “Just Do It.” We could add, “But be nice about it.” You don’t have to beat yourself up to get moving.
Savor the Post-Exercise Glow
Remember how amazing you felt the last time you hit the gym or took a hike in the woods? How clear and calm you felt after your last yoga class? Exercise can settle your mind. It can make you feel refreshed from head to toe. It helps to dissolve tension in places you may not have realized were tense. You want to remember this feeling. The next time you exercise, pause for a few minutes afterward. Sit down or lie down to fully savor the post-exercise glow. It may be all you need to get yourself on the track tomorrow.
Your body gets used to moving at a certain level. After a few months of consistently walking three miles, it takes less energy and effort. But you won’t get stronger if you keep walking the same distance at the same speed. This is where stress comes in: It’s not only good but essential for getting fit and healthy. We build strength, endurance, and agility by incrementally adding resistance, repetition, or duration. Muscles grow stronger when they’re repeatedly challenged at their maximum capacity, causing the thin strands of muscle fiber to tear. In the day or two following this stress, the muscle fibers repair themselves by binding back together in a way that enables them to handle a heavier load. We grow stronger by stressing a system and letting it adapt to be able to handle a higher capacity.
Calm the Body, Calm the Mind
Have you ever noticed that when your body feels tired, it’s hard to focus? When your body feels tense, there’s a good chance your mind feels tense, too. The state of your body reflects the state of your mind. A good walk clears away the mental cobwebs. A well-paced run can settle an agitated mood. Flying down a wide-open stretch of road on a bicycle can lift a heavy heart. Moving your body stirs stuff up and shakes things out in a way that nothing else can. Energize your body, and you’ll energize your mind. Calm your body, and you’ll calm your mind.
Cross Training 101: Four Ways to Mix Up Your Movement
The best way to keep your exercise routine fresh is to avoid getting stuck in a rut of doing the same workout every time. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends healthy adults include a variety of exercises including weight lifting, stretching and balance exercises, and movement to increase your heart rate.
Cross-training is key. Variety in workouts makes moving fun and is essential to building stronger muscles. While you may be tempted to simply do your favorite exercise seven days a week, opening your mind to new workout styles will do more to improve your health and fitness in 2018. Experiment with a few types of cross-training activities until you find what works best for you.
With some ideas to get you started, here are the main categories of exercise:
- Cardio Activities: These include brisk walking, running, biking, swimming, rowing, dancing, and any other exercises that get your heart pumping. All of these are great ways to boost metabolism, build endurance, and settle your body and mind after a busy day.
- Holistic Training: Commonly called mind–body exercises, these include hatha yoga, qigong, tai chi, Pilates, and other alignment-based practices like Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique. These holistic disciplines focus on balancing physical and mental energy and healing physical imbalances.
- Strength Training: Adding resistance or weight to any type of exercise increases anaerobic endurance (shorter, high-intensity exercises that don’t require oxygen to generate force), while strengthening your muscles and bones. Try using free weights or machines at the gym, buy a resistance band to use at home, or hit the floor for push-ups and sit-ups.
- Lifestyle Activities: Have you considered gardening, climbing the stairs, playing with your dog, child-care, and even cleaning as exercise? Well, they are! Enjoy movement through these moderately intensive activities, and you’ll find yourself exercising all day.
We can stave off the winter blahs by not only staying active, but also mixing up our routines and having more fun as we exercise. Try spicing up your exercise routine with cross-training. It’s easy: Plan out your week of exercise with your go-to workouts. Then round out your plan with 2–3 new ways to move every week. Here’s to new opportunities to stay fit in 2018.
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.