Winter Freeze?
Shape Up Indoors

Low-impact exercises will see you through the season.

January/February 2017

By Linda Melone, CSCS


Snow, cold and wind—winter weather makes it easy to set aside all thoughts of getting in shape until the spring thaw. But sticking with a program throughout the winter lessens the damaging effects of short-term overeating and inactivity typical over the holidays, according to a 2013 study published in The Journal of Physiology.

The best news? A workout does not have to be high intensity for you to benefit. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York found that low-impact exercises helped decrease pain, improve mobility and enhance quality of life.
Here’s how to create and get the most out of an indoor workout as well as ways to avoid the most common challenges.

Setting Up Your Space

Contrary to what many people believe, a home setup does not require much space, says Galina Denzel, co-author of Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well: 52 Ways to Feel Better in a Week (Propriometrics) and owner of MoveWell Studio in Rancho Santa Margarita, California.

“You don’t need equipment or even a whole room. Just move aside your coffee table and chairs to create a space,” Denzel advises. Or, she adds, your bedroom can become a larger, suitable workout area, especially if you have a large window or sliding glass door for a scenic view. Get creative in thinking of ways other parts of the house can become a part of your workout, such as including a set of stairs.

Stairs work well if you usually walk outside, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University. “Use the steps in your house by pacing quickly up and down on the bottom step. Then, place your foot on every other step as if you were hiking up a steep hill.” Repeat these techniques over a 10-minute period for a low-impact cardio workout or thorough warm-up to prepare you for other exercises.

Solving Exercise Quandaries

If you’re confused about how to get the most from your exercise experience because of all the different opinions out there, these tips can help you have a healthy workout.

Stretching: Some experts believe stretching before exercise helps prevent injuries, but you can actually injure yourself by stretching until it hurts or holding the stretch too long. A better method is to warm up before stretching. Do slow, relaxed, fairly static movements such as rotating your arms or swinging your legs back and forth to loosen stiff muscles before attempting more dynamic movements. Then try a reduced version of the movements you’ll use in your activity, being careful not to over-stretch. Avoid bouncing, which causes muscle receptors to contract rather than stretch. Keep in mind that stretching won’t prevent an overuse injury.

Wearing a brace: If you have an ankle or knee injury, a brace can provide stabilization during healing. But don’t rely on these devices for protection and then delay doing rehab to gain strength and mobility. “People can become overconfident in their ability and expect the brace to prevent injury,” says Heidi Orloff, MS, PhD, retired professor of exercise science at Puget Sound University. A brace can help in the short term with knee injuries, but thigh muscles need to be strengthened and developed to prevent future problems.

Similarly, ankles which have chronic sprains need to get stronger and more flexible. Back braces and weight-lifting belts are intended to ease stress on the discs between the back’s vertebrae by providing intra-abdominal pressure. “Most people don’t hurt their backs lifting weights; they actually hurt them bending over to pick up something,” Orloff says.

“Muscles need to be strong yet also fire in the correct order. I’m not sure muscles learn that wearing a lifting belt.”

Exercising with a balance ball: Sitting on a balance or fitness ball while exercising forces you to use core muscles, so it can accelerate strength training in that area. But the ball is an unstable surface, so sitting on it too long can put strain on the lower spine. To get the best benefit choose the right-sized ball for your height: When sitting on the ball, your knees should be at a right angle with your feet flat on the floor.
—Beverly Burmeier

If you own a treadmill, elevate it by up to 2% to represent the natural changes in terrain and wind so it closely mimics walking outdoors, says Olson. “Also, use some of the built-in programs typically offered on a treadmill: Pikes Peak, hills, random. These programs provide variation to your routine, which will enhance your running when you go back outdoors.”

Simple furniture doubles as impromptu workout equipment as well. Use a kitchen chair for squats, suggests Olson, using the seat of the chair as a guide for determining how low to go. It also works for triceps dips, elevated pushups and step-ups. Add a yoga mat and a set of dumbbells, and you open yourself up to even more workout options. “Take the time spent inside to do planking and stretching” on a mat or carpet, says Olson. “Incorporate dumbbells to isolate key muscles used in outdoor activities.”

Start planning your workouts by setting aside specific, blocked-out time, says Denzel. “Make sure it’s realistic, whether you’re striving for three days a week or every other day. Plus, consider the length of time you have to allow for each workout, be it 20, 30 or 40 minutes, and stick to it. Note, however, the less time you allow yourself, the more you must plan your workout to ensure you get right to it.”

When creating a low-impact workout, keep in mind that you must monitor your tempo, says Denzel. You should be able to breathe and talk without gasping for breath, a sign that the intensity may be too much. “Choose exercises you feel you can do well,” says Denzel. “Start with no more than 10 to 15 reps, and begin with one set and slowly build up over time.”

Workout Basics

Always start with a warm-up. Walk around your house and rotate your joints to warm them up as well, says Denzel, who adds, “Rotate shoulders, elbows and wrists, and do ankle circles.

March in place to get the whole body moving.” A good way to get in a time-efficient, full-body workout is by alternating between upper and lower body exercises with a core move in between, she suggests.

This strength-training sequence should be done after warming up by walking in place or any other type of light cardio for 5 to 10 minutes (until you begin to break a sweat):

1. Squats: Stand about six inches in front of a chair, feet shoulder-width apart and turned out slightly, knees aligned with feet (do not turn knees inward). Keep your abdominals tight as you slowly lower yourself by bending at the knees and hips and pushing your hips back towards the chair as if you’re about to sit on it. Touch it lightly and then slowly return back to standing. Repeat 15 times for one set.

2. Pushups: Start with hands at chest level, on the floor (or against the kitchen counter), arms out to the side in a right angle, fingers pointed up towards your head. Prop yourself up on the balls of your feet or on bent knees, and keep abdominals tight as you lower your body towards the ground while keeping shoulders, hips and knees aligned throughout (do not let your hips sag). Repeat for desired number of reps and sets.

3. Planks: Lie on a mat and prop yourself up on your forearms. Contract your abdominals to engage your core and raise up on to the balls of your feet until your body forms a straight line: shoulders, hips and ankles should align (do not allow your hips to hike up or sag). Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; relax and repeat for desired number of sets.

“Start with one set of each the first week, then add a second set the next week and then do three sets the next week,” says Denzel.

Low-impact cardio workouts are more challenging to create if you’re counting on getting your heart rate up primarily by using resistance training. Denzel says it can be done with bodyweight exercises performed vigorously, such as dancing or walking up and down stairs, or by using DVD workouts.

Common Pitfalls

Working out at home seems like an ideal solution for many people, says ACSM-Certified exercise physiologist Mark Nutting, CSCS*D, owner and master trainer at Jiva Fitness in Easton, Pennsylvania. “No crowds, no travel, only music that you like, etcetera. However, it’s common to see a piece of home exercise equipment collecting dust or acting as a clothes rack.” These suggestions can help you stay on track.

1. Avoid distractions: Phone calls, chores or whatever else may pop up can pull you away, never to return (at least for that day), says Nutting. “Commit to the workout time and in that time, do nothing else. Everything else will still be there when you finish.”

2. Hold yourself accountable: At a club you develop friendships that help to keep you accountable, says Nutting. “At home, it’s just you reporting to you.” Use a calendar to check off the days you completed your workout. Reward yourself when you reach a certain goal, such as after 20 workouts you get a massage.

3. Spring for a session or two with a trainer: Proper form is everything, not only to get best results but to avoid injury. “The lack of a well-constructed program will cause you
to pause and to pause is to put off, possibly indefinitely,” says Nutting. Consider hiring a certified personal trainer, even for one or two sessions, to create an individualized program that you can then follow by yourself.

4. Change it up: Boredom is a motivation killer, whether at home or at a gym. The key lies in changing up your workout every four to six weeks, says Nutting. “Rehire your personal trainer to create a new workout for you with new exercises and new progressions. This will help keep you interested and the gains will keep coming.” Or look up workouts on YouTube conducted by certified trainers.

5. Practice temptation bundling: Pair the workout with something you enjoy, such as watching a TV show or listening to music, or exercising with a friend or neighbor, says Denzel. “Or have an agreement with yourself to do something afterward that you really love doing and only do that something when you work out.”

Most importantly, learn how to measure the benefits of your workouts without relying on the bathroom scale, says Denzel. “Find something else, like increased energy, lowered stress levels or not having to take a nap in the afternoon.” All these things can help you stay motivated and in good health for life.

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