by Amy Brayfield
You’ve laced up your sneakers, bounded through your warm-up cardio, and opened your front door — only to close it again because of the cold, gray rain pounding down outside. The next day, the wind is whistling down your usual walking trail so hard you have to turn around and head home halfway through your walk. Cold weather can trip up even the most committed exerciser — as researchers at Brigham Young University discovered in a 2006 study that found regular exercise is least common during the winter months and in cold climates.
But while cold weather brings with it several workout challenges, you shouldn’t let a chilly forecast stop you from staying active this winter. Research suggests that winter temperatures can exacerbate joint pain and increase flares for some people with arthritis, and regular exercise remains one of the best ways to control and prevent arthritis pain. Numerous studies have shown that exercise plays an important role in minimizing arthritis pain, improving joint function, and even slowing down the process of joint deterioration, making exercise a vital component in your wintertime self-care routine.
Still, finding ways to move your workout indoors can be challenging. The trick is to make a plan, or a series of potential plans to test in turn, so that you don’t stop moving, says Donna Konradi, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Indianapolis, who has studied how and why people persist with exercise. “The biggest danger is dropping your workout altogether and becoming sedentary,” says Konradi. “If you can’t do your regular routine, find some alternatives.”
So if wintry weather has derailed your usual workout, you might consider exploring one or more of the following ideas for taking your workout indoors. As always, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before starting a new workout program or making changes to your current program.
Mall walking. If you’re happiest hoofing it around your neighborhood, head to your local mall and walk laps there. Malls may not have a reputation as the most exciting places to walk, but they are usually comfortably heated, well lit, and full of other winter walkers just like you. You might even find a cold-weather walking buddy. If the crowds drive you crazy, head over early: Many malls open their front doors an hour before most stores open, so you can finish your walk before the shopping crowd arrives. (For more ideas about places to walk indoors in the winter, see “Indoor Walking Spaces.”)
Health club membership. Many health clubs, including YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers, offer short-term trial memberships that can be a perfect solution for winter exercise. If the prospect of exercising at a club seems intimidating, seek out a club that feels comfortable to you. Some clubs, such as the Nifty After Fifty franchise, are only for people older than 50. Others, such as Curves, are for women only. Any club should offer an orientation session with a trainer who understands arthritis and who can show you the best equipment for your particular workout and how to use it. Most clubs also offer classes that are usually free to members, and many offer exercise classes specifically for people with arthritis. Make sure you understand the terms of your contract before you sign up. For example, some require a minimum number of visits to qualify for a discount rate; others may automatically reenroll you as a member after your term ends unless you specifically request otherwise.
Take a class. Most class sessions last just a few months — the perfect amount of time for you to try something new while you’re stuck inside. You can look for Arthritis Foundation–sponsored workout classes designed specifically for people with arthritis, such as water exercise or tai chi classes, or you can sign up for any gentle-on-the-joints exercise class, such as yoga. (To learn more about Arthritis Foundation–sponsored exercise classes near you, go to the Foundation’s Web site or call  283-7800 to get contact information for your local chapter.) A class is also a great opportunity to explore an unfamiliar activity — you never know when you’ll discover something you’ll want to add to your year-round exercise routine.
Dance. Close the blinds, crank up the music, and move to the beat. A 30-minute dance session requires no special skills and no special equipment and gives you a great workout. Be sure to move your arms as well as your legs to maximize your workout. You can take lessons or rent a DVD if you want to try specific steps, but just moving to your own beat works fine.
Rent a video. Your local library can be a treasure trove of free fitness videos. Otherwise, you can visit a video rental store or video resale shop. Not sure what to try? Ask your rheumatologist or a friend for recommendations, or see “Great Workout Videos” for a list of arthritis-friendly videos.
Form a group. Chances are good other people are facing the same winter workout dilemma you are. Band together to create a workout group, and meet a couple of times a week to exercise together with a video or at a class. Not only will enlisting a friend make your cold weather workouts more fun, it will also increase your accountability, making you more likely to exercise regularly.
Create a home gym. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or space to set up a workout area in your home. An exercise ball, a couple of free weights, and some resistance bands won’t cost a lot of money, and they offer a wide variety of workout options. If you’ve never used a particular type of equipment before, look for a short-term class that will give you an opportunity to try out the equipment before you buy it, and ask the instructor of the class for purchasing tips.
Stretch, stretch, stretch. No matter how or where you choose to exercise this winter, remember that stretching is an essential part of a healthy workout. Take advantage of the increased flexibility of your warmed muscles after a workout, and do a series of stretches for 30 minutes or so.
If working out indoors isn’t your style, remember that this is not the only option in winter. If you love your outdoor workout, you don’t have to abandon it when cold weather strikes. “While exercising in the cold weather may take some getting used to, with the right precautions and preparation, it can be a great boredom buster,” says Karin Richards, director of the Exercise Science & Wellness Management Program Fitness and the Health Science Program at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Here is some advice for safely and successfully exercising outside in wintertime.
Make the most of your warm-up. Warming up is a key part of a healthy exercise routine for people with arthritis, and it’s even more important to warm up during cold weather. Double the length of your usual warm-up when the temperature dips. If you typically warm up for 10 minutes, spend at least 20 minutes warming up during the colder months.
Bundle up. Cold weather can trigger joint stiffness swiftly, so dress for your outdoor workout as you would for any cold-weather outdoor adventure: Wear gloves, put on your hat, and tie on a scarf. You can always shed layers if you get too hot during your workout, but don’t venture outside until you’re winter-ready.
Stay dry. Our bodies lose heat faster when we’re wet, so keep that in mind as you’re getting dressed for your workout. Because exercisers can get wet from both perspiration and precipitation, consider wearing a “wicking” layer (made from a noncotton material such as polyester or nylon) under your workout clothes to draw away moisture, as well as a water-resistant jacket or coat.
Bring your water bottle. Cold weather presents a high risk of dehydration, in part because people feel less thirsty and therefore drink less water when it’s cold. So be sure to drink lots of water during your winter workout, just as you would if the weather were warmer.
Time it right. Shorter days mean you have to rearrange your workout schedule. If you usually take a walk after dinner, you may want to plan your walk for earlier in the day so you don’t find yourself exercising in the dark.
Finding it hard to get moving? The winter blues combined with the very real fear of exercise-induced pain that people with arthritis face can be major barriers to exercise. If you’re feeling less than motivated to get moving, here are some strategies to psych you up.
Give yourself a break. Consistency is important, but too-rigid a schedule is a recipe for disaster. A study at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, found that people who adjusted their workout routine to accommodate their arthritis were more likely to keep exercising than those who pushed themselves too hard. If you usually work out in the morning but wake up one morning with extreme stiffness in your knees, switch to an evening workout that day.
Keep a journal. An exercise journal can be a great tool during cold weather, when you may be experimenting with different kinds of workouts. Keep a record of your fitness activities and their positive and negative results, and bring the journal with you to your next doctor visit to share with your doctor.
Know your reason. The University of South Carolina study also found that people with arthritis were most likely to exercise if they believed it made a difference. If you’re dragging, remind yourself that regular exercise helps lower your pain levels, control your weight, and improve your ability to move.
The moral of the story is that you do not have to put your workout on the shelf during the winter months. With so many options to choose from, you’re likely to find an exercise alternative that resonates with you. Winterizing your workout may be just what you need to breathe a little fun into your usual exercise routine and keep you healthy and happy until spring rolls around.
Last Reviewed November 1, 2012
Amy Brayfield is a freelance writer and editor based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Get the latest arthritis news and the most useful self-management tips delivered to your inbox twice a month! Sign up for our free e-mail newsletter today.
Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.