Within the past few decades, few sports have risen to prominence quite as dramatically as running. Since 1990, the number of annual finishers in US running events has more than tripled, with more than 17 million crossing the finish line last year alone. With the rising popularity of the marathon as a fitness goal and the community 5k as a fundraiser, there's never been a better time to learn to jog a few leisurely miles.
Now, conventionally, running season begins in the early spring. In my hometown of Chicago, the Shamrock Shuffle - a frequently-chilly 8 kilometers through the heart of the city - marks the kickoff to the season around late March or early April. However, with the rising popularity of the sport, there's no wrong time to get started. So why not start now? Not only could starting an exercise regimen in January not be a bad idea, it could actually be your secret weapon during the chilliest and most temptation-laden time of the year, for more than a few reasons.
1) Start Slow, Finish Strong
It's good advice for a race, but it's even better advice for training. In accordance with the American Heart Association guidelines, I generally advise that my patients get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, with no more than two days off in a row. However, that always comes with the caveat to increase activity gradually and patiently. Especially for those just beginning to increase their activity from a sedentary baseline, building up an adequate aerobic base can be a slow process. My advice is to listen to your body, always slow down or stop for pain, and to give yourself as much time as you personally need to increase your ability. An indoor track or treadmill can be monotonous for more than half an hour of activity, but in the early stages of a walking plan or couch-to-5K jogging plan, it can work just as well as an outdoor course, and have you trained up and ready to take advantage of the gorgeous spring weather by the time sunny days roll around.
2) Stay Warm
One of the best habits that anyone can get into as a runner, after hydrating and sleeping well, is keeping their core strong. A well-developed core not only adds endurance while running, it also provides improved support throughout the day, reducing overall neck, back, and shoulder pain in many individuals. When even looking out the window is getting too close to being caught in a sub-zero windchill, body weight exercises are a perfect way to break a sweat without leaving home. The ideal core workout focuses on all sides: abs, obliques, and back. Whether you use an app, a workout video, or an online guide, odds are you'll be getting a solid workout that will shave time off of your future runs and leave you feeling better in your day-to-day, too.
3) Stave Off The SADs
As I mentioned at the beginning, I live in Chicago - a land where for about one third of the year it is dark, cold, and not infrequently icy. Although only about 4-6% of Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder, an type of major depression that re-occurs every winter, an estimated 10-20% experience a milder form of "winter blues" characterized by some degree of increased appetite, sleepiness, depressed or irritable mood, and low energy. Even though these symptoms sound like the kind of thing that would keep anyone away from the gym, studies have shown that regular physical activity is effective in keeping them at bay. Which is perfect, because keeping these symptoms in check does a great job to . . .
4) Hold Off Holiday Weight Gain
It's not just an American phenomenon - in countries worldwide, holiday seasons mean not just traditional meals and treats, but the corresponding weight gain that comes with all of those get-togethers. A regular fitness regimen doesn't just burn calories during the exercise itself, but also increases basal metabolism, leading to more calorie-burning throughout the day. Add to that exercise's demonstrated improvements to both the hormones that encourage appetite and the body's handling of blood sugars, and a winter training program can easily stave off a few pounds that might have snuck on between cravings and inactivity.
5) Beat The Rush
I'll be the last to throw stones here. I've been one of the many, many people who've made a New Years' resolution to get in better shape. I've made it after an autumn and winter of near-inactivity, only to show up at the gym on January 2nd not even sure of where I wanted to start. But I've made a few resolutions after having gotten some training in at the end of the year, and the difference has been that those resolutions have come from a base of knowledge. Knowing my body, where it was at that moment in time, what it had been capable of a month earlier, empowered me to make a resolution that I knew I could reach. Rather than "starting fresh," I gave myself a head start - a warmup, if you will - and it made all the difference in the world.
So this winter, think about picking up a good pair of trainers, and go find yourself a treadmill or even a nice ice-free stretch of sidewalk. It might just be the best gift you could give yourself.
About the Author:
Dr. Elita Hohner, DO, is a family medicine physician with AMITA Health Medical Group in La Grange. Her medical interests include sports medicine, osteopathic manipulation, dermatology, and women’s health. She enjoys spending time with her family, running and participating in marathons, and serving within the community. Click here to find out more about Dr. Hohner.