05.02.2024 change 05.02.2024

Winter activity particularly good for your health, say scientists

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Physical activity in winter supports the body's physiological defence mechanism against cold. It causes increased metabolism and stimulates the circulatory system, say scientists who have examined the impact of winter activity on somatic parameters, body composition and motor skills of men.

At this time of the year, exercise is even more beneficial than in the summer: it increases the production of immune system cells bodies, allows more oxygen to reach the brain, improving its performance, and increases the level of endorphins, which protect against seasonal low mood.

These conclusions come from a study conducted by scientists from four Polish universities. Moreover, they have also shown that exercise in open spaces in winter makes it possible to burn more energy than in other seasons, which results from the need for additional energy expenditure to heat the body.

Dr. Jarosław Fugiel from the Department of Biostructure at the Wroclaw University of Health and Sport Sciences, together with colleagues from the Witelon Collegium State University in Legnica, the Hirszfeld Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy and the University of Physical Education in Krakow conducted an experiment aimed at assessing the impact of winter outdoors physical activity on somatic parameters, body composition and motor skills of adult men. The researchers described their results in the journal Healthcare.

'Two groups of adult men participated in the project,’ says Dr. Fugiel. 'The subjects did not differ in age, height, body weight or BMI. One group consisted of men with higher physical activity, who maintained it also in the winter period, the other of men who spent their free time passively and whose activity was low. Our goal was to assess changes in their structure (body weight, fat mass, BMI) and motor skills (strength, endurance, flexibility) after the winter period.

‘The average age of the participants was approximately 45 years. Those in the active group exercised regularly outdoors 3-5 days a week, each time for 1-1.5 hours. All mentioned parameters were measured at the beginning and after the end of the experiment.’

The results left no doubt. 'Winter physical activity resulted in a reduction in body weight, BMI and waist and hip circumferences. In active men, the level of adipose tissue decreased significantly and the mass of skeletal muscles increased. In people who did not engage in physical activity during the same period, an increase in the level of adipose tissue and its distribution indicators was recorded,’ says Dr. Fugiel.

He adds that men who trained throughout the winter also improved their motor skills in all tested aspects. 'The greatest progress was made in endurance, muscle strength of the upper and lower body, strength of upper limbs and flexibility,’ he says. 

Conversely: in the case of men with low levels of activity, researchers recorded a decrease in the level of motor skills, with the highest decreases observed in the dynamic strength of the lower limbs and endurance.

Dr. Fugiel says that all the benefits that winter outdoor activity brings to training men are extremely important for the overall quality of life. Given the growing epidemic of overweight and obesity, maintaining proper levels of body fat is crucial. In turn, improving muscle strength and body performance prevents many diseases and health deficits.

In terms of activity, Poles are behind the rest of Europe. 'The level of physical activity in the adult population in Poland is low, and our society is one of the least active in Europe,’ says Fugiel. 

The Eurobarometer survey cited in his publication shows that Poland belongs to the group of eleven least physically active inhabitants of the EU. Over 56 percent Polish society does not participate in any sporting activity, which places the country well below the European average of 43 percent. The leaders in this respect are even further ahead: among the inhabitants of Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, as many as 84 percent adults practice some sport in their free time.

Other studies show that the percentage of Poles who exercise regularly decreases with age. Among people aged 30-39 it is nearly 30 percent, in the group 40-49 it drops to 19.3 percent, and between the ages of 50 and 59 - only 13.5 percent of people exercise. All this has a very negative impact on motor skills and respiratory endurance, which translates into a lower quality of life. 'The consequences of lack of physical activity include negative health effects, faster ageing of the body and an increased risk of many lifestyle diseases,’ says Fugiel. 

Physical activity is seasonal and related to the conditions outside. Many studies have confirmed the existence of a relationship between the willingness to exercise and the time of year. People move more during warmer periods. As the air temperature and sunlight decrease, and, above all, with the increase in precipitation, their participation in physical activities decreases significantly. The length of the day also plays an important role.

Meanwhile, as the researcher emphasises, winter should not be a time when people give up activity. ‘Outdoor activities in winter burn more energy than in other seasons. And in general, it offers more benefits than in summer: it increases the production of immune system cells, allows more oxygen to reach the brain, which improves its performance, and raises the level of endorphins, which protect against seasonal low mood,’ says Fugiel. 

He adds that among the men tested in the active group, there was a noticeable decrease in body weight and improvement in body composition, while in those who did not exercise, these parameters worsened. This is particularly important in societies where most people lead a sedentary lifestyle, the problem of obesity and the incidence of lifestyle diseases are increasing.

Seasonal differences in physical activity levels also have a significant impact on lowering immunity, increasing the incidence of cardiovascular diseases and seasonal infections.

In their publication, the authors of the study note that during periods when the temperature drops and there is snow on the streets, the most common outdoor activity is walking. Elderly people in particular avoid other forms of exercise during this time for fear of slipping and injuries. However, according to researchers, the health effects of walking alone may be insufficient. According to them: ’The results of our own research speak to the necessity of incorporating regular exercise into the population of adult individuals leading predominantly sedentary lifestyles. It is particularly important for ageing adults to maintain regular physical activity, as this allows them to avoid premature health problems and, as a result, maintain their work efficiency. Engaging in regular physical activity resulting from the individual body’s capabilities in adulthood provides a chance to enter old age with a higher health potential.’

Dr. Fugiel summarizes that in winter one should exercise regularly in open areas, as it brings tangible health benefits. Therefore, he and his co-authors emphasise the need for action on the part of decision-making centres (local governments or non-governmental organizations) and media (including social media) to raise awareness among adults about the necessity of also engaging in physical activity during the winter season.

'Exercise is extremely important for health at all ages. Exercise in winter, outdoors, brings additional benefits. Therefore, everyone should be encouraged to exercise,’ says Dr. Fugiel. 

PAP - Science in Poland, Katarzyna Czechowicz

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