Exercising in winter when you’re perimenopausal or menopausal
How to get going when it’s cold outside
- Learn the benefits of exercising in the cold
- Treat yourself to insulating kit
- How to warm up and fuel during the winter
We all know exercise is good for us, and on a lovely sunny day, going for a walk, run or cycle with the sun shining on your face can be life affirming. When it’s cold, wet, and grey outside, however, motivation can be in short supply. But for exercise to be beneficial, we need to be regularly doing it year round, whatever the weather.
In a survey for Dr Louise Newson’s book, the Definitive Guide to Perimenopause and Menopause, women revealed that their main barrier to exercise was a lack of motivation (51%). So how do you get motivated to exercise during the winter?
What are the benefits of exercising in the cold?
One of the reasons many of us dislike exercising in the winter is that it feels harder. We’re not wrong – your body does need to work harder to perform when the weather is harsh. But look at it this way, by working harder, your exercise is more effective.
If you’re exercising to lose weight, take comfort in a study that found that cold weather workouts can burn more calories than those done in warm weather . As your body works harder to keep you warm in the cold, your metabolism increases so your body burns more calories.
This is beneficial to your heart – as it needs to work harder to pump blood around your body, it strengthens, giving you cardiovascular benefits.
Your immune system also has to work harder in order to prepare to fight off viruses – this gives your immune system a boost, which is pretty handy in winter.
Then of course there are all the “regular” benefits of exercising, whatever the weather, and an important one is the effect it has on your mood. When you’re perimenopausal or menopausal, you may suffer swings of low mood or feel a little flat at times. A review of 97 papers, which involved 1,039 trials and 128,119 participants, found that doing 150 minutes each week of various types of physical activity (such as brisk walking, lifting weights and yoga) significantly reduces depression, anxiety and psychological distress, compared to usual care such as medications or counselling .
What to consider
Ensure you’ll stick to your exercise plan by setting yourself a goal. It doesn’t have to be anything big, in fact it’s better if it’s something small and achievable. Far better to say ‘I will run/walk for 10 minutes’ rather than ‘I will run three miles’. Plot these sessions in to your calendar or set up an alert on your phone – block them out so nothing else can get in the way.
Also give some thought to your diet and nutrition. We tend to eat heavier meals in the winter but you won’t want to exercise if you’re feeling sluggish. However, your body will tire more easily in the cold weather without adequate fuel.
Dr Hussain Al-Zubaidi, the Royal College of GPs Lifestyle and Physical Activity Lead, fitness coach and Ironman triathlete, explains: ‘People tolerate different foods and timings. Experiment to find your perfect routine but here are some principles that can help.’
- We can store 500g of carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. The majority of this is stored in the muscles and is enough to fuel approximately 80 minutes of exercise at maximum lactate steady state. Therefore, fuelling during your workouts is generally not needed unless you are doing prolonged sessions beyond this, and in fact the most important time to fuel for your workout is the day before.
- If you are doing a prolonged workout, give your gut time to absorb and process your food otherwise you may struggle with gastrointestinal discomfort. People can tolerate different time periods but experiment with 1.5-3 hours before activity.
- Carbohydrates are generally vilified these days and quite wrongly. It is the preferred fuel of your body and will be crucial to support you during aerobic activity. Switch from refined (processed) carbohydrates to wholefood complex carbohydrates.
- Consuming carbohydrates and protein soon after your workout is best as the body secretes large amounts of the enzyme glycogenase in two hours post-workout. This stimulates the muscles and liver to better absorb and store carbohydrate.
Also consider hydration. Many of us don’t feel the same urge to drink in the winter as we do in the summer, but dehydration is still a risk when you’re exercising in the cold. In fact, a study found that cold weather reduced thirst by up to 40 per cent when exercising . Take a bottle of water with you and take small sips regularly.
What should I wear?
When you’re exercising outdoors in the cold and rain, layers are essential for keeping you warm and protecting you. Start with a thin base layer made of a synthetic material that’s designed to draw sweat from your body. Don’t choose cotton as this absorbs sweat, which will make you colder.
Your next layer up top will be to keep you warm – think of something made with wool for insulation. Then finish with a waterproof outer layer.
Depending on your personal preference, you may choose to wear thermal leggings. Also consider your extremities, which are vulnerable to the cold – a hat, gloves, and warm socks will help. For those who struggle with the cold, Dr Hussain recommends wearing your hat, gloves, and warm socks in the house for 5-10 minutes before going outside. Even consider doing your warmup indoors to create a layer of warm air within your clothing, which will help insulate you during your workout.
If the cold air affects your breathing, one option is to wear a thin buff, which you can pull up over your mouth and nose to warm the air while you adjust to the cold.
Before you jump straight into your chosen exercise, spend time warming up. This is especially important in the cold, where cold muscles are more likely to get strained, but also when you are perimenopausal or menopausal as the decline in oestrogen leads to a decrease in muscle mass and strength, making you more prone to muscle injury.
Dr Hussain’s winter warm-up routine
Perform each exercise in a controlled manner, focusing on proper form. Adjust the duration and intensity based on your fitness level and listen to your body. This routine should leave you feeling ready and energised to brace the cold of winter.
Jumping jacks (2 minutes):
Start with a classic cardiovascular exercise to increase your heart rate and warm up your entire body. Jumping jacks are effective and easy to do.
Dynamic stretching (3 minutes):
Perform a series of dynamic stretches to increase flexibility and range of motion. Include movements like leg swings, arm circles, and hip circles to help activate your muscles and joints.
Bodyweight squats (2 sets of 10 reps):
Engage your lower body with bodyweight squats. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and lower your body as if sitting back into a chair. Make sure to keep your back straight.
Walking lunges (2 sets of 10 reps per leg):
Lunges target your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Take a step forward with one leg, lower your body, and then push back up to the starting position. Alternate legs with each lunge.
High knees (2 sets of 20 seconds):
Lift your knees towards your chest in a jogging motion. This exercise helps warm up your lower body and engages your core muscles.
Plank (1 minute):
Transition to the ground for a plank to engage your core muscles. Keep your body in a straight line from head to heels. This static exercise will activate your core and stabilise your spine.
Jump rope (3 minutes):
Jumping rope is an excellent full-body exercise that elevates your heart rate and improves coordination.
Torso twists (1 minute):
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and twist your torso from side to side. This helps warm up the muscles in your core and lower back.
Calf raises (2 sets of 15 reps):
Finish your warm-up with calf raises to activate your lower legs. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and lift your heels off the ground, rising onto the balls of your feet.
Don’t sweat it!
Some days, despite all your best intentions or plans, you might not be able to face getting outside to exercise. That’s OK. The key is to be prepared for this by having a back-up plan. It’s perfectly possible to exercise indoors – whether that’s doing weights in your living room or following an online stretching class or a HIIT workout.
The menopause is a time to listen to and respect your body, so it pays to have a flexible approach. Work with your body, not against it, and you’ll be more likely to come out of winter recharged and ready for spring.
Follow Dr Hussain @irondoctorhaz
 Kern P.A., Finlin B.S., Zhu B., Rasouli N., McGehee R.E., Westgate P.M., Dupont-Versteegden E.E. (2014), ‘The Effects of Temperature and Seasons on Subcutaneous White Adipose Tissue in Humans: Evidence for Thermogenic Gene Induction’, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 99, (12), pp. E2772–E2779, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2014-2440
2. Singh B., Olds T., Curtis R., et al .(2023), ‘Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 57 pp.1203-1209. doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2022-106195
3. Kenefick R.W., Hazzard M. P., Mahood N.V. & Castellani J.W. (2004), ‘Thirst Sensations and AVP Responses at Rest and during Exercise-Cold Exposure’, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36 (9), pp1528-1534. doi: 10.1249/01.mss.0000139901.63911.75