Saturday, January 30, 2010

Winter Excuses

I've always thought that cold weather was the powerful force against weight loss. I mean, it makes sense. We're so often told that our metabolisms shut down during the dark, cold days of winter and go into hibernation mode. That the desire to eat more and pack on/retain fat is "natural." Not surprisingly, S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is the current weight loss fail scapegoat. Less sunlight = less Vitamin D and thus less energy, or so the theory goes. So, trying to stay fit and healthy during the winter is a no-win proposition. Even unnatural. Right?

Uh, no.

We can learn a thing or two from Icelanders. We think winter here (well, at least up North) is bad. But in Iceland, not only is the climate brutal but the country gets, on average, only 4 hours of sunlight in the winter. Relatively speaking, they eat a fairly high caloric diet consisting of fatty lamb, dairy, carbs, fried pancakes and fritter-thingies and lots of sweets. And, of course, fish. Fried, salted, preserved fish. Poultry meat is not a staple (they don't like to eat birds, traditionally), but they wholly welcome eggs into their diets. Yet, Iceland ranks as one of the top healthiest nations in the world. Why is that?

For one, Icelanders do not "shut down" in the winter. They are, for the most part, quite physically active. Even in the dark. They enjoy numerous sports, and are renowned for their great strength.

Perhaps the explanation lies with their badass Viking genes.

Public Domain and Fair Use, so suck it.

Maybe this is explained by generations of evolution where only the strongest and fittest survived. Or perhaps they are onto something that we cannot quite accept: That life goes on even in the most challenging conditions. Rather than succumb to it, we can and should adapt, move on, and make the best of it.

I just watched an Anthony Bourdain "No Reservations" episode where he stayed in Iceland in the dead of winter. One day, he visited a local gym, which was packed with buff-looking men and women who were vigorously engaging various exercise equipment even as icy blackness loomed just beyond the glass walls. Before and after their workouts, they eat large bowls of fatty lamb stew. No protein shakes, oatmeal, cereal or skipping meals.

Physical activity in Iceland is a way of life that is ingrained early on. Icelandic authorities* recommend at least an hour of moderately intensive physical activity at least 5 days per week for children to maintain physical health.** Is that what your child is doing? Is that what YOU are doing?

This kind of calls into question these old notions we have about winter. About how cold weather and lack of sunlight bring us down. As Icelanders have shown, these are no excuses. In fact, they take advantage of the time they have indoors to devote to physical fitness. Sure, they fuel up on necessary carbs, proteins and fats. But they also burn it off.

Why, then, can't we? Are we using "winter" as another excuse?

For me, this winter has been challenging in the sense that I have turned into the biggest freeze crybaby ever. I wrap myself up much like Ralphie's little brother, Randy, even indoors. On the other hand, since I'm cooped up, I've been spending a little more time on the morning workouts. Workouts warm me up, and so I'm not cold anymore. Sure, I get tired, but that's usually after I come home from work. It's a process of whining and then adapting. Since I have more dark time in the morning, I use it to exercise more.

While I may sound pretty self-righteous saying all of this, the fact is that we all have the ability to change and adapt. We shouldn't misinterpret initial, petty negative body signals to mean that we just can't do it. Sure, the darkness is a downer and we feel more tired at certain times. But summer hotness also drains some energy out of us. So do Spring allergies. When will the excuses stop and the will take over? Exercising counteracts a lot of those bad feelings. After a little while of daily, consistent activity, it will be as if weather weren't an issue at all.

Yeah, we definitely could learn a thing or to from those eccentric, but sensible, Bjork-ies.

* Well, U.S. authorities, too, but most of us tend to pooh-pooh them anyway.

**While the study shows that Icelandic children have increased their physical activity over the last ten years, Western couch-potato trends have spread their tendrils into the brain stems of a lot of adolescents, and more physical activity is recommended.


  1. I am still trying to re-adjust to this Ohio winter. In Texas I got used to the heat, and never used it as an excuse. Usually I'd go jogging after dark when it was only in the 80s or so, but I got so used to it I'd go even during the day... a couple times even when it was around 100 degrees. Biologically, the human body adapts to hot climates a lot easier, since we did the vast bulk of our evolution closer to the equator.

    I just got back from jogging through town here, and it sucked on many levels... it was literally ten degrees with ice hazards everywhere. I actually had sweat and snot frozen into my crunchy beard by the end. Worst of all: there is an expression about "freezing your d**k off" and honestly that became a legitimate concern. However, I guess with some different attire and a renewed awareness of my expanding corpulence, I'll be back out there tomorrow...

  2. Like you, Cam, I've become a double-wool-sock-wearing, triple-layered-mummy wrapped in a down other words, a cold-weather-wimp. I think I've forgotten how to dress for cold weather - in fact, I finally wore a pair of gloves on a run the other day and marveled at the fact that my hands weren't, who knew?!?

    I know I would feel better if I could just suck it up and go for that bike ride (wind! cuts right through me!) or run (cold cold cold) when the temperatures drop...and I do have a run planned for tomorrow when it will be pretty cold - I'll think of you while I'm out there. No more excuses!!!

  3. Great post! I'm a winter wimp, too, but I figured out last year that exercise will get the blood flowing, and then I feel like doing more. It's a beautiful circle. :)

  4. This is an amazing post and one I really appreciate for several reasons:

    1) It's enjoyably educational - I mean, who knew that about Icelanders?

    2) It's motivational!

    3) It's all true.

    I know it's is infinitely easier to curl back up under the covers and hibernate than change into your workout clothes and go do some physical exertion, but when do you ever regret exercising? Never, is when. You certainly always regret NOT exercising, but you never regret making the effort. I remind myself of that ever time I feel like taking the day off. I mean, rest is essential once in awhile, but I'm talking about when I'm just making excuses because I'm not feeling the exercise mojo. So I usually challenge myself just to do something. Anything. Just make the effort. And usually, after a few minutes, I get into it and am merrily sweating away. Then comes the hot shower and life resumes.

    Thanks again for this meaty and inspiring post. Love you!

  5. Got my bare feet covered in snow while getting the mail because I was wearing flip-flops. While I like to view myself as a hearty New Englander and unafraid of such things as snow, ice and other frozen precips, I will always use the bitter cold as a reason not to go to the gym. I guess "lazy" and "hearty" cannot coexist. Rats.

  6. I agree! I've not been sick thanks to exercising regularly. So amazing a cure yet so simple!

  7. Great post. It can be tougher to brave the cold for sure. But excuses are just that. It is hard to beat the high temps in August too. I've slowed down some in the winter also, but I know that it's on me. I have to admit though that I have become a cold weather sissy.

  8. Here in Norway there is a saying, "There is no wrong weather, only wrong clothing." Seriously, the next Norwegian to say that to me is going to get his head lopped off! But you're right. Only 4 hours of sun light - no problem. Below zero temps - no problem. Healthy, fit, stunningly beautiful people! The best thing they do is to take many holidays. My daughter has a week off of school in February. I've been told the reason is because it helps prevent suicide! Many people also use happy lamps. BTW, love Bourdain!

  9. Great has motivated me to go for a walk today. It has actually warmed up to 68 degrees here in Mesa, AZ... Mesa is the real answer to winter excuses. Come take a look at my blog I try and keep it very light. (not pun intended) And just so you know your husband was and is right.

  10. Here's another take on cold weather affecting weight loss for ya. We know our bodies need to maintain a temperature of 98.6 degrees fahrenheit. We also know our bodies burn calories in the form of food to maintain body temperature. This is analogous to a furnace burning gas. If we put a person in a room that is at 75 degrees for one day and then put the same person in a room that is 60 degrees for the next day, on which day do you think he or she has burnt more calories (all other factors being equal)? It's simple chemistry. The metabolism "shutting down" argument sounds good on the surface but falls apart with a little application of logic. Our emotions, gut-level hunches, and wish thinking about how our bodies operate do not always translate into physical reality. Just saying. Oh, and congratulations on the weight loss! You look great and I hope you continue to be successful.

  11. Thanks to you and your blog, I got no work done yesterday, and today so far has been unproductive. But now I'm all caught up. :)

    Your progress is amazing!

    Very inspirational...the kick in the ass I've needed for quite a while!

  12. Hi, I'm visiting for the first time and love your attitude. I've made excuses in the past for not working out in the winter, but it's just as easy to make excuses during the other three seasons.

    I plan to spend some time lurking at your blog and reading your "story". I love me a good success story!