How to work out in winter: 9 tips for staying motivated as the temperature drops

Finding motivation to work out in winter can be difficult. Here, two fitness experts offer tips to get back on track

Woman wearing yellow hat and gloves outside in the morning after learning how to work out in winter
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Finding the motivation to work out in winter is hard, there's no way around it. If you've spent the summer heading out to the gym early or enjoying a walk before the sun goes down in the evening, you may find your workout motivation dropping almost as fast as the temperature.

It's perfectly normal and it happens to all of us. Given that darkness naturally tells our bodies that it's time for sleep and relaxation, an evening on the couch catching up on the latest Netflix must-see becomes all the more tempting when we physically feel a lot more tired than normal. 

However, exercising in winter can actually be one of the best ways to boost your mood and it can help you learn how to combat SAD. Not only does it offer the same flood of endorphins we experience year-round, exercise in the cold also has a whole host of unique benefits from warding off colds to helping you learn how to get fit. Here, fitness experts offer us all the tips and workout motivation you'll need to get back out there this week. 

Why is exercising in winter hard? 

Finding the motivation to work out in winter is difficult for several reasons but the main one is the impact of darker evenings and mornings on the brain. As research from Baker Heart Research Institute (opens in new tab) explains, the rate of serotonin (aka 'happy' hormone) production is directly related to how much sunlight we get and the less we get in winter, the lower our levels of serotonin. When this happens, it often causes what's known the 'winter blues' or, in more extreme cases, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) symptoms

We naturally want to sleep more in winter as well, since the reduction in sun exposure dramatically impacts our circadian rhythm, according to research by New York University (opens in new tab), causing our bodies to produce more melatonin - the sleep hormone.

Woman smiling wearing grey and pink raincoat, walking in the forest in winter

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are physical barriers that make exercise harder in winter, too. Runners and walkers tend to experience more joint pain as these seize up in the colder weather, while roads or trails tend to be slippier. We also often underestimate our body's response to cold weather. For example, many people don't drink as much water in the winter, explains Martin Sharp (opens in new tab), a fitness and lifestyle coach. "Even though you may not sweat as much as in the summer months, you'll still experience fluid loss so remember to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated," he says. 

If there's a chill in the air, it's also harder to breathe. "When it is very cold the chill can put a strain on your lungs, which is further exasperated if you are exerting yourself," he explains.  So, how do you stay motivated to work out in winter? Scott Thomson (opens in new tab), global athletics director at F45 training (opens in new tab), and Martin Sharp explain. 

How to stay motivated in winter

1. Make sure you have the right clothes

One of the easiest ways to motivate yourself to exercise in winter is having the right clothes. If you know you're not going to have to face biting cold as soon as you walk out the door, you'll be more likely to go.

Along with making sure you know how to keep your feet warm, depending on the activity you're doing, layering up with clothes is essential. "Make sure you dress for the weather, with appropriate layers in your clothing that breathe and can be taken off as you get warm along with putting on as you cool off," says Sharp. 

Clothing also needs to be reflective when you work out in winter, for both your safety and the safety of others. "Make sure you wear reflective clothing so it can be easily seen, especially if exercising near a road," he adds. Luckily, much of the high-quality reflective clothing out there is made for winter anyway and it's normally waterproof, so you can avoid seasonal showers as well.

2. Get a workout buddy

If you love morning workouts but the cold is putting you off, get a work out in winter with a buddy to keep yourself accountable. "A friend can help motivate you to achieve your fitness goals and empower you to try new workouts together," Thomson says. "Fostering positive social relationships from those who are supportive and encouraging of our intrinsic goals not only helps to keep us accountable but creates a sense of camaraderie to help build confidence and mental willpower to persevere." 

While we all need time to relax with friends and family away from exercise, taking your catch-ups on a workout can make this easier too. "Swap coffee dates with studio dates, and you’ll achieve your fitness goals while also getting in some much-needed quality time," he adds. 

Woman walking with stick through forest, learning to work out in winter with friends

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Find a new goal

Making a habit stick is all about the goals you set for yourself. When we have something to work towards, something to 'tick off' the list at the end, we tend to have more motivation. So, it might be time to set yourself a new aim for winter. 

"To make a habit stick, you need to understand the purpose behind doing it," the trainer agrees. "Figure out your 'why' and write it down. When you begin training, ask questions to gain clarity around what exactly it is that you will be working through during a training session. This educational component or sense of learning to gain clarity creates a sense of perceived control, which drives confidence, empowerment, and autonomy when motivation is low in winter." 

4. Try something new

Setting a new goal this winter could mean setting yourself a new numerical goal, like a new personal best, but it may also mean trying something new. "You may lose inspiration doing the same type of training over and over, mixing up training styles can be a refreshing way to re-invigorate your interest and motivation to keep active," Thomson says. For example, you could add ankle weights to your walking workout or work out in winter inside. 

If you're looking for ideas, speak to your friends and family to find out what they do. Or, try out one of the best fitness apps if you're more into home workouts when it's colder outside.

5. Try working out in the morning

Working out in the morning has loads of health benefits. For example, a study by the University of Western Australia (opens in new tab) found that exercising in the morning tends to improve our attention span and decision-making skills for the day. Another one from Appalachian State University found that we tend to go into a deeper sleep and sleep better if we exercise in the morning. 

Getting up and out early could also help you keep up the motivation to work out this winter. "It’s easy to get bogged down with work or plans with friends in the evening. Having your workouts at night may lead to you just forgoing them after a long day of work, which could leave you feeling frustrated. By prioritizing working out first thing in the morning, you have less chance of putting it off. It can also set the tone for the day ahead and put you in a positive mood," Thomson says. 

Woman walking across grass hill early in the morning wearing hat and gloves

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Prep everything in advance

It's funny how off-putting the tiniest difficulties, like pulling out your workout clothes, can be on a cold morning. To make things easier for yourself, Thomson suggests removing those hurdles before they come up. 

"Go ahead and lay out your gym clothes the night before, fill up your bottle, and pack yourself some post-workout snacks. Ridding of these trivial tasks may help reduce your chances of making last-minute ditches," he says. 

7. Modify your workouts

With motivation at an all-time low, it makes sense to scale back your routine if you want to work out in winter. If you try and push yourself hard when you just don't want to exercise, you'll just stop entirely eventually. 

"Scaling exercises to optimize technique or intensity is a crucial part of functional, smart training," Thomson assures us. "Not only does this put us in a position of control to boost our motivation, but it also keeps us mentally engaged and intrinsically focused to master the technique before progression." 

So, he says, it's perfectly fine to take things back a step and do a regressed version of your workout before working your way up again. This could mean swapping out your runs for LISS cardio, for instance, or doing some yoga for beginners in your living room out of the cold. 

"We all start somewhere when it comes to fitness and the only way to move forward is to keep moving," Thomson adds. 

Woman doing yoga in kitchen with sunshine coming through the window in winter

(Image credit: Getty Images)

8. Set yourself a 2-month challenge

Leading research from University College London (opens in new tab) suggests that it takes 10 weeks to build a habit, working out to just over two months. This winter, if you're really struggling to stay motivated, take it one day at a time and find motivation for two months. It may sound like a lot, but we all know how fast time flies. 

Once you've got past the two-month phase, you'll be out the other side of your motivational slump - and spring will almost be here. "You may not be motivated every day but staying disciplined can help you achieve your goals one step at a time," the trainer says. "Creating a routine can be tough or daunting at times, but in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is important to keep consistent with your workouts and healthy choices."

9. Schedule your workouts

One great way to make sure you hit that 2-month mark is scheduling your workouts. This could be blocking out the time in your calendar, making sure that your workplace and family know you'll be away during these times, or it could be relying on keeping an appointment.

"Book into a class or studio session on the regular as external motivation can be an incredibly useful kickstarter at times," suggests Thomson. "If you don’t have access to an external fitness class, make yourself an appointment to work out or be active for a specific time of the day. You don’t skip an appointment at the doctor’s so why would you skip an appointment to work on your own health?" 

Grace Walsh
Health Editor

A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.