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How to keep exercising this winter

Robbie Puddick
Written by

Robbie Puddick

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

7 min read
Last updated June 2024

Jump to: Identify your intrinsic motivations | Make it social | Wrap up: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing | Take home message

Exercise is a challenging habit to develop and maintain. It’s estimated that around 60% of U.S. and UK adults don’t meet the general recommendations to complete 150 minutes of physical activity per week. At the same time, it’s estimated that a quarter of the planet’s population is not active enough.

This is particularly true in winter when the cold weather sets in. Recent research suggests that seasonality plays a role and that physical activity levels drop significantly during the winter months.

There are likely several factors contributing to this; the colder weather, the shorter days, and the winter blues (seasonal affective disorder or SAD) are all possible reasons why people will stop exercising as much as they do during the rest of the year.

Fortunately, we’ve put together three strategies to help:

  1. Identify your intrinsic (internal) motivations: Exercise habits normally wane because people do it for external reasons. Share your activity on Strava or get your ‘summer body’. When the winter comes, and the barriers to exercise are greater, these are no longer strong enough to keep you going. One of our health coaches and nutritionists, Natasha, has put together this values tool; run through it and identify your core values and why exercise and movement are important for you.
  2. Make it social: Evidence shows that creating a social environment with your exercise activities will make it more likely to maintain them, even during those dark winter nights. Join a local club or recruit some friends to join you in your activities.
  3. Wrap-up: Exercising in harsher conditions can help develop resilience, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for the weather. Get the right clothes, warm up, and find liberation in exercising in the extremes. As Alfred Wainwright famously said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

At Second Nature, you’re supported by a registered nutritionist or dietitian and a group of others looking to improve their health, maintain a healthy body weight, and maintain an exercise routine.

You could join people like Becky, who found her internal drivers to exercise and live healthier.

If you’d like to give us a go, click here to take our health quiz.

Otherwise, keep reading as we look at the three strategies above in more detail to help you maintain your exercise habits this winter.

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1) Identify your intrinsic motivations

There’s a misconception that all you need to do is set goals, take them step by step, and you’ll achieve all of your exercise of health ambitions. While goal setting can play an important role, you first must identify the why before thinking about the what and the how.

This is what your values are; they’re your why. They’re why you have a family, are loyal to your friends, or continue to learn and improve in your job. It’s because those things tie to your internal value and provide you with a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

Exercise is no different. We all know what we need to do (move more) and how to do it (walk, run, etc). But why do you want to exercise? What benefits will exercise bring to you? What does it say about you as an individual?

Complete the following exercise to help you identify your values:

Step 1) Name a time that you were truly happy…

For example, “When I was hiking in the Lake District with my family.”

Step 2) What was it about that time that made you so happy?

For example, “I was spending time with my family, away from distraction and stress, and being out in nature.”

Step 3) Identify values from step 2

For example, this individual values:

  • Family
  • Balance
  • Nature
  • Adventure

From these values, you can then allow these to guide and motivate your actions. Let’s say you’re planning a run at lunchtime, but it starts raining. Your motivation dips as you visualise a cold, wet, soggy run through the countryside. An hour in front of the TV sounds more comfortable.

But then you consider your values. You value a sense of adventure, you value being outside in nature, and you value finding balance in your day. So, running in the countryside is the perfect way to align your values.

It’s this that will drive you to keep going.

Key points:

  • External (extrinsic) motivators such as how you look and Strava kudos are not very effective at motivating people to exercise when there are high barriers to exercise.
  • Internal (intrinsic) motivators aligned to your core values, such as health, happiness, and adventure, will help you maintain your exercise habit in the long term.

2) Make it social

Humans are social animals. From our early days as hunter-gatherers, we were members of tribes that would live, hunt, gather food, and raise our families together under one social and group identity – and this was cemented into our evolutionary development as an essential part of our being.

While our lives have changed somewhat since then, that evolutionary desire to be a part of a group has not waned. Research shows that people that are socially isolated and have poor social support are 42% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and twice as likely to experience early mortality.

Concordantly, research on parkrun – a free 5K run operated in local parks by thousands of volunteers in 768 locations across the UK and the world – has found that individuals with a stronger group identification (how strongly you identify as a part of a specific group) had higher rates of participation, group cohesion, and life satisfaction.

This suggests that our internal desire to be a part of a group of like-minded individuals is as strong as it always has been and that exercising as part of a group will increase our participation levels and overall happiness and mental health.

Four tips to make exercise social and hit your fitness goals::

  1. Join a local club or parkrun.
  2. Create a Whatsapp group with your friends and see what activities they would like to try together each week for your winter workouts.
  3. Post on your community channels (Facebook etc) to see if anyone wants to join you in the activity you’d like to do.
  4. If you can afford to, hire a personal trainer or attend exercise classes (such as HIIT or aerobic/cardio) at your local gym.

Key points:

  • Humans are social animals that have evolved as part of social groups.
  • Research shows that people with lower social health have a higher risk of developing chronic diseases and dying earlier.
  • Strong group identification and being a part of a social exercise group may increase your participation and life satisfaction.

3) Wrap up: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing

One strategy we could have added to our list is exercising indoors, which we’ve written about here. However, we wanted to focus on the benefits of maintaining an outdoor exercise habit due to its benefits beyond being good for your heart and muscles.

Compared to indoors, outdoor workouts have been shown to positively affect psychological factors such as hope, optimism, and self-efficacy. Similarly, a study showed that exercising outdoors lowered physiological and psychological stress to a greater extent than indoor exercise.

Research also suggests that people who exercise outdoors have more social interactions and have a greater intent to continue exercising.

This suggests that maintaining your outdoor exercise habit over winter may help improve your mental and physical health and increase the likelihood you’ll maintain your habit in the long term.

Doing a warm-up before your outdoor workout is also worthwhile to increase your heart rate and maintain your body temperature when it’s cold outside.

There seems to be something about outdoor activities and fresh air, even in the colder temperatures, that gives us an extra boost to improve our fitness levels.

Here are three tips to help you maintain your exercise habit in winter:

  1. Get yourself wrapped up: The appropriate clothing can make all the difference. If you’re more comfortable in what you’re wearing, you’re more likely to step outside and get going. We’d recommend headbands, mittens, base layers, and outer layers to beat the windchill during the colder months.
  2. Exercise in the morning or at lunchtime: It can be challenging to motivate yourself to get outside on a cold, wet night. So please take advantage of the sunlight while you have it. Your motivation also wanes during the day, so it’s best to go when it’s at its peak so it feels more accessible this time of year.
  3. Reflect on the first two recommendations in this guide: Identify your core values and make it social.

Key points:

  • Exercising at home can be a helpful way of maintaining exercise over the winter.
  • However, outdoor exercise may bring more benefits beyond physical health and promote a stronger intent to maintain your habit.
  • Getting the appropriate clothing, exercising earlier in the day, identifying your core values, and making it social can all be helpful ways to maintain your outdoor exercise habit this winter.

Take home message

It’s natural for our exercise levels to dip a little bit in the winter. The cold, wet days and nights can make motivating yourself to get up and go challenging compared to a sunny warm spring day.

But if staying fit and healthy through exercise is important to you and ties into your internal values, then it’s worth making the extra effort to make that happen. What have you got to lose?

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