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Just Keep Moving- The Importance of Staying Fit During the Winter Months

Josh Meyers, PT, DPT, OCS

By: Josh Meyers, PT, DPT, OCS

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

Researchers took several healthy 20-somethings, put a cast on one of their legs for 2 weeks, and watched what happened. The results were what you would expect; the average subject lost 25-30% of their strength in the casted leg. What was unexpected though, was that when those same young men hit the weights to regain their lost strength, it took them over 6 weeks to regain it. That’s over three times longer than the period of immobilization! (And they were young and healthy!) The lesson here is that it is much easier to maintain your strength than to try to recover it.

Sedentary Surprise

A similar loss of strength (and additional effort to recover it) takes place when people are sedentary. With winter here, most of us find ourselves inside more and doing less activity than we would like. Before most people know it, their arms have become weaker from a lack of lifting, reaching or carrying. Their legs have lost strength because daily walking and standing activity levels have decreased. Slower, more sure-footed steps in snow or ice have allowed balance muscles to get lazy. And core muscles have atrophied from more time spent sitting. If you don’t have a plan to counteract these loses during the winter, you are asking for a lot of extra work come spring.

Age Plays a Role Too

To make matters worse, loss of strength becomes more significant as you age. If a 45 year-old person loses 50% of their strength, it is likely that they can still perform the majority of basic activities, and life goes on. If that same person is now 70 and only loses 25% of their strength, there is a good chance that they may lose their ability to go up and down stairs, walk the grocery store, or keep up with house work. Despite the fact that strength losses become more significant with age, the lesson is that it’s still easier to maintain your strength than recover it.

Staying Fit

So how do you keep what strength you have? Taking the stairs, parking farther away while shopping, and leaving the house every day are a good start to increasing activity levels, but they are not going to get the job done. Healthy adults require a minimum of 2 ½ hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. That means you need to elevate your heart rate and keep it there at least 20 minutes in order to do some good. Strength training is also a key component to staying strong. Healthy adults should incorporate muscle strengthening activities at least 2 days per week. The traditional method of lifting weights works well, but performing body-weight calisthenics (push-ups or pull-ups) or heavy digging or carrying at home counts too.  By the way, research shows that there is even more health benefit from additional time spent on these activities, but what is described above is the minimum.

Finding Success

History has shown that when you choose fitness activities that are enjoyable, easily accessible, and have a high level of accountability, you will have the most success. Enjoyable in the sense that you naturally gravitate toward them. Maybe it is outdoor activity like biking, hiking, or cross country skiing. If your bent is to stay indoors, find your niche at a fitness club, walk the mall at a brisk pace, or exercise to a workout video at home. Accessible in the sense that the activity is easily accessible. The fewer mental and physical obstacles that are present, the more likely you are to stay consistent with a busy schedule, bad weather or other commitments. If you choose an inside activity, make sure it is close to home or work. If an outdoor activity requires gear (skis, etc.), keep that gear in your car or by the door so you can grab and go. Accountability significantly increases your success with new activities too. Having a partner brings variety, motivation and encouragement into the picture. You are also more likely to show up for a workout when someone is waiting for you. Find the right activity now and you thank yourself come spring.  

Josh Meyers, PT, DPT, OCS is the Regional Director for OSTI clinics and physical therapist at Edgebrook Physical Therapy.  For more information on Josh Meyers, PT, DPT, OCS or our Edgebrook Physical Therapy clinic, click on the locations tab of our website.