Stepping up activity if winter slowed you down

A close up of man's hand pointing a TV remote and sock-clad feet and legs in denim jeans up on a couch with TV in background showing beautiful blue skies, trees, and puffy clouds outside

If you've been cocooning due to winter’s cold, who can blame you? But a lack of activity isn't good for body or mind during any season. And whether you're deep in the grip of winter or fortunate to be basking in signs of spring, today is a good day to start exercising. If you’re not sure where to start — or why you should — we’ve shared tips and answers below.

Moving more: What’s in it for all of us?

We’re all supposed to strengthen our muscles at least twice a week and get a total at least 150 minutes of weekly aerobic activity (the kind that gets your heart and lungs working). But fewer than 18% of U.S. adults meet those weekly recommendations, according to the CDC.

How can choosing to become more active help? A brighter mood is one benefit: physical activity helps ease depression and anxiety, for example. And being sufficiently active — whether in short or longer chunks of time — also lowers your risk for health problems like

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • diabetes
  • cancer
  • brain shrinkage
  • muscle loss
  • weight gain
  • poor posture
  • poor balance
  • back pain
  • and even premature death.

What are your exercise obstacles?

Even when we understand these benefits, a range of obstacles may keep us on the couch.

Don’t like the cold? Have trouble standing, walking, or moving around easily? Just don’t like exercise? Don’t let obstacles like these stop you anymore. Try some workarounds.

  • If it’s cold outside: It’s generally safe to exercise when the mercury is above 32° F and the ground is dry. The right gear for cold doesn’t need to be fancy. A warm jacket, a hat, gloves, heavy socks, and nonslip shoes are a great start. Layers of athletic clothing that wick away moisture while keeping you warm can help, too. Consider going for a brisk walk or hike, taking part in an orienteering event, or working out with battle ropes ($25 and up) that you attach to a tree.
  • If you have mobility issues: Most workouts can be modified. For example, it might be easier to do an aerobics or weights workout in a pool, where buoyancy makes it easier to move and there’s little fear of falling. Or try a seated workout at home, such as chair yoga, tai chi, Pilates, or strength training. You’ll find an endless array of free seated workout videos on YouTube, but look for those created by a reliable source such as Silver Sneakers, or a physical therapist, certified personal trainer, or certified exercise instructor. Another option is an adaptive sports program in your community, such as adaptive basketball.
  • If you can’t stand formal exercise: Skip a structured workout and just be more active throughout the day. Do some vigorous housework (like scrubbing a bathtub or vacuuming) or yard work, climb stairs, jog to the mailbox, jog from the parking lot to the grocery store, or do any activity that gets your heart and lungs working. Track your activity minutes with a smartphone (most devices come with built-in fitness apps) or wearable fitness tracker ($20 and up).
  • If you’re stuck indoors: The pandemic showed us there are lots of indoor exercise options. If you’re looking for free options, do a body-weight workout, with exercises like planks and squats; follow a free exercise video online; practice yoga or tai chi; turn on music and dance; stretch; or do a resistance band workout. Or if it’s in the budget, get a treadmill, take an online exercise class, or work online with a personal trainer. The American Council on Exercise has a tool on its website to locate certified trainers in your area.

Is it hard to find time to exercise?

The good news is that any amount of physical activity is great for health. For example, a 2022 study found that racking up 15 to 20 minutes of weekly vigorous exercise (less than three minutes per day) was tied to lower risks of heart disease, cancer, and early death.

"We don't quite understand how it works, but we do know the body's metabolic machinery that imparts health benefits can be turned on by short bouts of movement spread across days or weeks," says Dr. Aaron Baggish, founder of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital's Cardiovascular Performance Program and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

And the more you exercise, Dr. Baggish says, the more benefits you accrue, such as better mood, better balance, and reduced risks of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cognitive decline.

What’s the next step to take?

For most people, increasing activity is doable. If you have a heart condition, poor balance, muscle weakness, or you’re easily winded, talk to your doctor or get an evaluation from a physical therapist.

And no matter which activity you select, ease into it. When you’ve been inactive for a while, your muscles are vulnerable to injury if you do too much too soon.

“Your muscles may be sore initially if they are being asked to do more,” says Dr. Sarah Eby, a sports medicine specialist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “That’s normal. Just be sure to start low, and slowly increase your duration and intensity over time. Pick activities you enjoy and set small, measurable, and attainable goals, even if it’s as simple as walking five minutes every day this week.”

Remember: the aim is simply exercising more than you have been. And the more you move, the better.

About the Author

photo of Heidi Godman

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Heidi Godman is the executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter. Before coming to the Health Letter, she was an award-winning television news anchor and medical reporter for 25 years. Heidi was named a journalism fellow … See Full Bio View all posts by Heidi Godman

About the Reviewer

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Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD

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