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4 Ways Winter Can Impact Weight

I think most of us can agree that it’s been an especially rough winter with below normal temps in much of the country and some major wallops for snowstorms. Although it’s only early February, the pitch of our collective cabin fever might suggest it’s several weeks later than it is. Just as our moods might need a little extra care and inspiration this time of year, it’s also a logical time to put more thought and creative effort into our health. Research demonstrates that winter is peak season for weight gain as well as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and less favorable lipid profiles. Check out these four reasons why winter takes a toll and what you can do to beat back the less welcome aspects of the season.

Low vitamin D is working against you.

With fewer hours of light and the diminished power of the sun’s rays, those of us farther from the equator are operating at a major disadvantage (and have been for months at this point). Low vitamin D has been linked to a wide variety of unwanted conditions and patterns, including increased body fat, increased muscle fat, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, autoimmune dysfunction, heart disease and depression. And the impact can be substantial. For example, research has associated vitamin D insufficiency with an over 50% greater risk of metabolic syndrome.

While the sun’s rays are approximately 33% stronger now than the first day of winter, they are still insufficient for those in the northern regions to gain enough benefit from moderate amounts of time outside - even if we could stand to be outdoors with significant skin exposed! While we can and should take advantage of a sunny day by rolling up our sleeves (maybe while shoveling?), the fact is we need more vitamin D than these (too often) rare opportunities provide. Even if you skip supplementation during summer, choosing a quality vitamin D source is imperative insurance for the colder months.

You’re moving less.

We all sense this intuitively, but research supports the inkling time and again. Even if we keep our gym time the same, when the winter months settle in, our overall fitness takes a hit. Studies confirm that we spend the colder months moving less, a significant percentage of that drop attributable to the decrease in outdoor chores (despite the shoveling). Hibernating might feel like a logical option some days, but over the course of a season we pay a steep price for the slump in activity. When researchers compared the effects of a “sedentary/exercise” protocol (a sedentary day with one hour of intensive exercise and one hour of standing) with a “movement” protocol that included no exercise but five hours of walking and two hours of standing, the movement protocol resulted in significantly better impact on lipid profiles and insulin sensitivity.

Even on days when we can’t bring ourselves to go out into the cold, we can take more laps around the office or the track at the gym. We can invest in a treadmill for our work stations or another piece of “movement” equipment at home to supplement our gym workouts. We can commit to a trail hike or other outdoor activity each weekend afternoon when we have the chance to get outside during peak sun and temperature highs. In a pinch, we can even look for chances to incorporate five minute spurts of activity throughout the day - at home or the workplace.

Your hormones might have shifted.

Most notably on the hormonal front, limited light during the winter months can increase our melatonin production. The result? We can feel more fatigued, even sluggish, which makes motivation to stay active that much harder to conjure. To counter the effects of limited light, experts suggest treating ourselves to bright light first thing in the morning and to spend as much time throughout the day in sun or full spectrum light as possible. For those who don’t have access to large windows during the day, light box therapy can help.

Although research on the seasonal patterns of other hormone outputs is mixed, studies suggest that the colder months can possibly impact testosterone and thyroid hormones (which play a role in metabolism and weight management) as well as the cognition- and mood-influencing brain protein BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) and serotonin transporters. If you feel you’re struggling to maintain your weight or achieve the same weight loss progress with the same efforts, consider a blood panel to check for red flags in your hormone levels. (This can be especially revealing and helpful if you have blood measures from the warm months.) As for BDNF, research shows exercise can boost levels no matter what time of year it is. Likewise, exercise increases serotonin function, which can potentially counter the increased transporter "binding" and removal of serotonin. It’s yet another reason to get to the gym as often– if not more often – in the colder months.

The cold can do you good!

Did you do a double take? Researchers have found that spending two hours each day in cooler temperatures (even as warm as 63 degrees - tropical sounding to most people this month) can increase your body’s production of brown fat. “Cold” exposure, researchers suggest, causes the body to expend energy for extra warmth. Shivering, for example, can cause the body to expend energy (i.e. produce heat) up to a rate five times greater than the resting metabolic rate. At warmer but not quite comfortable temperatures, our bodies will produce extra heat without resorting to the more extreme shivering by activating brown adipose tissue, which burns fat at a higher rate to keep us warm. In fact, cold exposure is the means for the production of brown fat cells beyond infancy.

One caution about taking on the cold... Because of the natural effects cold exposure can have on blood pressure and fat storage in the blood, researchers caution that those with hypertension or other cardiovascular disease should take additional care in low temperatures.

Finally, if you’re experiencing serious and persistent depression, hopelessness, fatigue or sleepiness, see your physician. Some 6% of the adult population experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder, a more serious condition that often responds to positive lifestyle changes but should receive medical care and observation.

How are you faring this winter? What have you done to step up your activity and stay on top of your other healthy practices? Thanks for reading, everyone!

Written by Jennifer Wannen Zotalis, Content Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.




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