An Exercise Physiologist Offers 3 Reasons Why You Should Work Out In The Cold
We likely don't need to convince you of the benefits of cold therapy (or "cryotherapy"). But just in case you'd like to browse some research: Studies have associated the practice with a balanced inflammatory response1, improved sleep2, muscle and joint health3, and mood support4. Plenty of longevity experts, doctors, and human performance specialists sing the praises of a consistent shiver-inducing therapy—and we can add exercise physiologist, personal trainer, and New York Times bestselling author Ben Greenfield to that list.
Of course, not many of us have regular access to a frigid body of water or the time to sit inside an ice bath a la Wim Hof. You can reap the benefits from an ice-cold shower, but let's be honest: It can be difficult to muster the willpower to turn the faucet all the way to freezing, especially during winter. But according to Greenfield, exercising outdoors can have similar effects to cold therapy.
"Any time you have the option to do an exercise session outdoors rather than in a neat, tidy gym, I think you should," he says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Here's why you should embrace the great outdoors, especially during this chilly season:
The link between cold therapy and mental health is well documented: Studies show that acute cold exposure activates the vagus nerve5—which, in turn, enhances the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system and counters the "fight or flight" response.
"Cold exposure, particularly cold water immersion for the face, is one of the best ways to tone that vagus nerve and allow your nervous system to have that type of resilience," says Greenfield. "When your vagus nerve becomes toned, it's able to more effectively communicate with the rest of the organs—the heart, the lungs, the diaphragm, the brain—and it also is able to respond to stress in a far more refined way."
Of course, exercising outside is not the same thing as dunking your face in a bowl of ice or taking a cold shower. However, according to Greenfield, "if you go outside and exercise in the ambient air temperature, preferably 55 degrees or under, you're getting some of the benefits." Not quite as much vagal nerve stimulation as you would get from cold water immersion, but it does have an effect.
Blood sugar balance.
"There's nothing that seems to control blood sugar more than cold," says Greenfield. In fact, research shows that intermittent cold exposure activates the production of brown fat6 (a metabolically active form of fat tissue that burns energy to create heat and manage body temperature) and balances the glucose response7.
Greenfield even uses the cold to his advantage when preparing his body for a glucose spike: "During a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, my blood sugar will often be down in the 50s and lower 60s until the early evening from a morning cold exposure," he notes. "This is a hack for me."
Of course, one of the main benefits of exercising outdoors is, well, the fact that you're outdoors. "It's this idea of embracing natural, outdoor movement versus this fabricated, inside-the-box exercise session," says Greenfield. Aside from the benefits of being outside in nature (which you can read all about here), Greenfield explains that working out outside is an "unpredictable" experience. "There are all sorts of things that happen outdoors that are unpredictable and are more stimulating to the mind," he notes.
For example, you have to keep tabs on your surrounding environment while you run so you don't trip over a rock, tree, person, etc. Whereas if you're running on a treadmill, it's easier to mentally check out. Similarly, lifting weights or participating in a HIIT session outside in the cold adds a layer of healthy discomfort that your body and mind must overcome. Greenfield would argue that this mental stimulation is just as important when strengthening your body—when you have to focus on the cold weather, it forces you to get out of your head in a way that promotes a degree of mental, physical fitness. That's why, Greenfield says, "we can actually keep our battery more charged by working out outdoors."
Coldwater immersion has been associated with myriad health benefits—but if you can't get up the gumption to dunk your face or body in an ice bath (or step into an ice-cold shower), exercising outside in the cold can provide similar effects. At the very least, it can help you ease into cold therapy and maybe (just maybe!) inspire you to take an at-home cold plunge.
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Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.