The Secret To Winter Exercise You Need To Know

The holiday season is strange. It’s filled with happy things, like food, family, and fun, but as the season grows colder and darker, and the holidays throw your schedule off kilter, you end up getting out of whack, too. Exercise gets put off until the New Year when you realize that a whole ‘nother year has passed, and you haven’t made any progress – or worse, you’ve gone backward – on your health goals. Well, I’m here to tell you that this doesn’t have to be the case. There are some secrets to exercising in the winter.

Okay, I’ll admit I did click bait you just a little with the title of this post. There is no secret, per se, to getting good exercise in winter. First off it’s not just one secret, but several. Also, the secrets are not bound by any season. Excuses like, “it’s too cold today,” or “it’s too dark outside,” or “I’m too busy” are just that: excuses. They can be and are used all year-round. The same goes for the “secrets” I’m about to share – they can be used all year-round, too.

So listen up. These principles will help you exercise regularly, regardless of location, people, time, climate, and virtually any other excuse for not exercising.

1. What is your “why”?


The biggest reason people don’t exercise is because they cannot find a good enough reason to do it. It may sound too simple to be true but please read on, because it’s true. If the reason isn’t important to you, you’re not going to spend the time and effort on it.

There’s a flip side to this. Nowadays, medical care is so good that a lot of people just don’t care about their health. They think, when I have my heart attack they’ll just put one of those stent things in me through my wrist and I’ll go home in a day. As a cardiologist, I see this all the time. Years ago, heart attack patients used to have to be placed under medical care for months. (The medical community stopped requiring this after many of those patients died from blood clots from inactivity). When I was in training to be a cardiologist, the typical stay after a heart attack was one week. In the past twenty years, that has dropped down to just 48 hours for an uncomplicated heart attack! It’s no wonder people don’t worry about their health – it just doesn’t seem as serious as it did before!

Medications have made a big difference, too. The father of one of my cardiology friends was so excited when the drug Lipitor came out. He proclaimed, “I get to eat more steak now and all I have to do is take this little pill.” A recent study found that after suffering a heart attack or stroke, only 4.3% will make a comprehensive lifestyle change. That’s four-point-three percent, not 43%!

Having said that, you may be one of the 4.3% that would become motivated to exercise after a life-changing event. Sometimes, that “event” is a medical event. Maybe it’s a heart attack, stroke, or false alarm that scares you into making a lifestyle change. Other times, it’s not that serious, but still works like a wake-up call. For me, my motivating event was when I tore ligaments in my knee and realized that if I didn’t drop the 45 pounds I gained, I’d be watching my life go by instead of being a part of it.

Other times, the event is totally outside of you. Sometimes, you see your friends or family get sick and realize that their lifestyle has finally caught up with them. Sometimes, it’s the birth of your child. Even though childbirth can be the most joyous time in your life, you may realize that the beginning of your child’s lives marks the countdown of yours. Again, in my case, one of my big motivators was that I wanted to be around as long as possible to see my kids grow up and to help them as their father. You can’t do that when you’re sick all the time, or worse yet, dead.

Motivations such as losing weight, looking good for a class reunion, wanting to have a six-pack, wanting to look good in a bikini this summer – you get the picture – are all too weakly motivating make true, lasting changes.

Purpose-filled “whys” make all the difference. For example:

I want to be healthy so that I can travel with my spouse when I retire.

I want to live a long time to see my kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids grow.

I want to feel good, feel strong, feel healthy – not sick, taking a ton of pills and having my main social life be comprised of doctor visits.

In other words, you have to find your own deep, meaningful why.

2. Make an appointment with yourself.


This is the Stephen Covey thing. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shares a grid that really sums up our busy lives.

The grid is divided up as so:

UrgentNot urgent
ImportantA: LifeC: Quality, improvement, growth
Not importantB: Distractions, bad planningD: Waste of time


Let’s talk about each quadrant.

A: Urgent and important. These are things that absolutely must get done. Even with the best planning, things will sometimes occur that becomes more urgent and important than everything else. These should be emergencies and hopefully limited in scope and frequency. For example: car malfunctions or illness in the family.

B: Urgent, but not important. These are things that have snuck up on you, likely due to bad planning, and you now have to drop everything to get it done. Maybe it’s a party you’re hosting tonight that you have to go grocery shopping for. You had known about the party weeks ago but now you’re up against the clock so you have to deal with it in a rush.

My favorite example of this is Christmas. I often see people in a panic as Christmas approaches. Store lines suddenly become long and filled with people with stressful expressions on their faces. Didn’t they have all year to get ready? It’s on the same day every year, is it not? How can they seem so surprised by it? (An example that hits closer to home, but is something I shall cease speaking of is the dreaded wedding anniversary…)

Interestingly enough, most people seem to spend the most time and effort in this category.

C: Not urgent, but very important. These are the things that you typically put off, as they are not under a time crunch, but are the very things that make you better. These are the things that help you grow and bring about the most happiness. One key thing to remember is that these often don’t bring about the most pleasure, but they do result in the most happiness.

I’ll name some of the things that belong to this category for me, and may apply to you, too:

Time with your spouse and children. Don’t wake up one day and realize that you’ve grown apart from your spouse. Don’t go to your child’s graduation and realize you don’t know their favorite color, their favorite food, their friends, and that you don’t know them.

Devotional time. Getting your mind right, relaxed, and re-focusing on your purpose is something that you should do on a daily basis; otherwise, we will drift off without realizing it. I read my Bible every morning, even before I exercise.

Reading for knowledge and self-improvement. Successful business tycoon Warren Buffet spends most of his “working” day reading. Why? Because that’s how he learns. Most people want to be good at their job. What’s the easiest way to achieve that? Read. Read about your job. Even jobs that require practice with your hands is greatly aided by reading and thinking about the job itself.

Finally, we get back to exercise. It’s easy to blow off working out today. We say, “I’ll hit the gym tomorrow.” If we do that too often, we’ll never get the benefit of exercise. If you want to lose weight, feel energetic, be able to run around with your kids, travel around Europe on vacation with your spouse, or go camping, hiking, backpacking with your friends, you will need to build up some endurance, stamina, strength. If you want to run a marathon, you’re going to have to put in some time.

The more we can spend our time and effort in this box the better we can become.

D: Not urgent and not important. This is the category for wasted time, so I won’t spend any time on this. We can all find a lot of areas in our lives that fit into this box. Your job is to eliminate it to make room for the important stuff.

Now how can you operationalize this principle? You need to book time to exercise. Make it a priority. Make it a scheduled appointment with yourself and keep it. You wouldn’t miss a meeting with your boss, would you? Well, when you get down to it, you are your first boss! Don’t ditch a meeting with yourself! Not only will you regret it, but you may have to fire yourself and hire a coach, literally. Seriously, there is a big market now for personal coaches, health coaches, life coaches, etc., because people are needing more help to keep themselves accountable.

3. Habits. It’s all about habits.


A book that I highly recommend is Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. In it, he explains how you can autopilot behaviors to make them easy. I don’t have time to explain the whole process, but I will go over the rationale for why habits are so powerful.

About 40% of what we do is totally habit-driven. Think about your morning routine. Wake up, go to the bathroom, brush teeth, make coffee, check email. You do these without thinking, instinctively. Actually, if you do them out of order, you might find yourself stopping in your tracks because you feel like something is wrong.

The great thing about habits is that they require little willpower or effort. You just do them. Everyone has good habits as well as bad ones. The important thing to remember is that you are the one who developed both types of habits. As a result, you can break the bad habits, and also build new good habits.

Building a new habit can take up to six weeks, in which time you will have to expend some willpower until it gets set. Once it gets set – take a breath of relief ­– you’re on autopilot.

The key features of a habit are the cue (reminder or trigger) and the reward, with the actual habit stuck in the middle. For example, my cue to exercise is finishing with devotion. I wake up, read my Bible, and then go exercise. That’s my morning ritual. It was hard at first but now is a habit as implicit as brushing my teeth. My reward for exercising is how I feel for the rest of the day. When I miss exercise, I don’t feel as sharp as I do on the days that I do exercise. I also don’t sleep as well on an exercise-less night.

For others, it could be something like this: Finish work, head home, stop at the gym for a workout, then go home for a light dinner. Or maybe this: eat a light lunch, walk for the remainder of your lunch break, then go back to work. The beauty of this is that you get to shape your own habits!

4. You have to enjoy it.


This actually should be first, but I put it last for a reason. This is so involved with #1 – finding your “why” – that I thought it needed some space away from it. This has everything to do with what you do, more than why you do it. But often what you do for exercise is related to someone else’s why or who told you to do it.

There are many examples. Maybe you run because someone told you should. Unfortunately, you hated running in the past and hate it still. I love running, but it’s not for everyone. (On a side note I used to hate running until I had this one really exhausting good run with a friend of mine). Trust me, this exercise program will not last. Or, maybe you play tennis with a group of guys, but don’t really like the group of guys. This is mental torture. Or, you might join a gym, but hate lifting weights or the grind of going to the gym, showering in a public shower, having to change clothes twice, and rushing off to work or back home. This, too, will not last.

If you like to run, run.

If you like biking, bike.

If you like walking, walk.

If you like rock climbing, climb away.

If you like softball, tennis, pickleball, whatever, great!

If you like Cross Fit, weight lifting, etc., go for it.

You get the point, right? I like the Nike ad that says “Just do it.” It doesn’t matter if you’re good at it – it only matters if you enjoy it. If you enjoy it, you’ll keep doing it. If you keep doing it, you’ll see changes and reap the benefits of exercise.

In summary, you need to find your personal motivation to exercise. It has to be worth doing, otherwise, you’ll drop it like a hot potato for something more important or at least more enjoyable. You need to schedule a “meeting” with yourself to exercise. Put in the initial effort to make it a habit, and then you’ll find it easy to keep it going. Finally, pick something you like and not what others tell you to do. Make sure it’s something you look forward to doing, something that you miss if you don’t get to do it.

If you can line all these secrets up then people will ask you what your secret was in your transformation to a more fit, healthy, and happy you. Good luck and here is the only seasonal-specific secret I’ll give you: if it’s cold outside, dress warmly.

Avatar photo
Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.


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