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There are plenty of opportunities to exercise in winter; just remember to wear layers — and sunscreen.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune file

How to survive a Minnesota winter

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Star Tribune
  • January 10, 2012 - 3:43 PM

For our ancestors, winter threatened their very survival. Would they run out of food and starve? Would they run out of fuel and freeze? Would they get lost in a blizzard just walking from the house to the barn?

These days, most of us can count on making it through the season alive. But cold weather continues to present challenges. Will you catch a cold? Can you keep from gaining weight? What to do about dry skin? How does one recover from the dreaded "hat head"?

Here are tips from local experts for avoiding modern winter's most common risks and maladies.

• Colds and flu occur more frequently in the winter, not because of cold weather directly but because people spend more time indoors and around others, swapping bugs, said Dr. Josh Riff, chief medical director for Target. Keep your immune system robust with good health habits, including eating nutritiously and sleeping enough. Wash your hands frequently (lather as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday," Riff suggested). "And here's a really important one -- get a flu shot," he said. "It's never too late."

• Keep your weight in check by starting the day with protein and fiber, advised Christina Meyer-Jax, a registered dietitian who teaches about nutrition at the University of St. Thomas. "We do not want simple carbohydrates for breakfast," she said. "Protein and fiber help keep you full longer." Good choices include fruit and a boiled egg, or yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit and nuts.

Consider packing your own lunch and making your own dinner. "People need to learn to cook," Meyer-Jax said. "When you cook, you get to control how much fat, sodium and calories you're putting into those meals.

• Winter is not an excuse to blow off exercise for three months. "It doesn't have to be working out in the gym with a heart rate of 180 for 60 minutes," said Mark Blegen, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at St. Catherine University. "It can be going around the block with your dog."

If you are exercising outdoors, dress in layers that you can adjust to prevent overheating from too much insulation, or frostbite and hypothermia from too little. Make sure the soles of your shoes (or your tires, if you're biking) have plenty of tread. When it's icy or dark, go slowly, wear lights or reflective materials to make yourself extra visible, and give cars a wide berth. "Don't think you can get out of this car's way like you can in the summer," said Blegen, a year-round biker. And vice versa; "don't assume that the car's going to see you -- and don't assume the car can stop."

• If you don't like exercising in the cold, consider a month-to-month gym membership. "Find something that keeps you motivated indoors," suggested Chad Ruf, director of personal training for Chanhassen-based Snap Fitness. Try matching your favorite outdoor activity with its indoor counterpart: A biker might enjoy a spin class, a runner the treadmill, a rower the rowing machines.

Conversely, winter offers an opportunity to try something different. Tamara Koscielski, head of the Group Fitness Department at the Lakeville Life Time Fitness, suggests hot yoga. The heat softens the skin, while yoga can improve your balance -- good preparation for navigating icy sidewalks.

• It's nearly impossible to get enough vitamin D in a Minnesota winter, because D is generated by sunlight on your skin, Riff said. The sun's rays are low, we spend more time indoors, and when we do venture out we're swaddled in fleece or wool. "Even if you're out all day running or skiing with your face exposed you just can't get enough." Ask your pharmacist to recommend a supplement, Riff suggested.

• Yet you should continue wearing a sunscreen, said Jillian Anderson, an aesthetician at Minnesota Gynecology and Aesthetics in Wayzata. To combat dry skin, exfoliate frequently (she prefers a body washcloth to a loofah), find an extra emollient moisturizer (look for words like "repair," "ultra-rich" or "intensely hydrating" on the label) and use it frequently. "I coat my hands before I go to bed so my hands are rejuvenating while I sleep," Anderson said.

• To keep your hair looking good, get a low-maintenance cut, go easy on the styling product -- a dime-size portion is plenty -- and limit your use of hot styling tools, said Dr. Duncan Simmons, a Minneapolis-based hair-transplant doctor with the Hair Club Medical Group.

Don't omit to read the fine print on your shampoo bottle and steer clear of those containing sulfates, which he said can "irritate and dry the scalp, strip color and shine, cause split ends, and cause the hair cuticle to become rough and coarse."

And when winter rears its ugly hat head, said Simmons, restore lift and volume with a round-bristle brush.

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