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Why Exercise Declines During Winter Months

winter morning running

As the temperature drops across the UK, new research shows how a “fitness freeze” sees interest in exercise plummet during the cold winter months.

Combined with this decline is the fact that searches for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) see an average national rise of 113% in the same time period each year, demonstrating Britons have both mental and physical health challenges to contend with during the colder months in particular.

Leisure operator Better has conducted an analysis of search data throughout the UK and in major cities. The findings unveiled notable decreases in physical activity, with Glasgow, Sheffield, and Bradford ranking highest for experiencing the most significant decline in exercise during colder weather.

Across the four UK nations, Scotland is at the forefront of the Fitness Freeze, with an average 30% decrease in searches for “gym routine,” “running routes,” and “workout routine” during the winter, which is perhaps understandable considering the colder temperatures north of the border. 

Meanwhile, Wales emerges as a beacon of winter workout enthusiasm. Despite the colder weather, the country experiences only a 9% decrease in exercise rates during the winter, suggesting that Welsh residents are more resilient to the fitness freeze compared to their UK counterparts.

Northern Ireland and England also exhibit a more moderate response to the winter chill, with decreases of 14% and 15% in exercise search interest, respectively.

When it comes to major cities, Glasgow emerges as the city least inclined to brave the cold for a workout, experiencing a substantial 36% decrease in fitness-related searches.

Sheffield and Bradford closely follow Glasgow, with both cities showcasing a 28% reduction. Leeds (-26%) and Liverpool (-25%) completed the top five cities with the biggest drop in workout motivation between October and December over the past four years.

On the flip side, Swansea and Preston emerge joint-top as the two cities where winter doesn’t deter fitness enthusiasts. With a surprising 29% increase in exercise rates during the colder months, the Welsh city and Lancashire locations are both breaking the mould by embracing outdoor activities, even when the temperatures drop. 

Nottingham joins Swansea and Preston in the top three, defying the fitness freeze with a 25% increase in exercise interest during the winter, followed by Southampton (25%) and Leicester (23%).

In tandem with the fitness freeze, the winter months witness a surge in interest in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Figures show an average increase of 113% in searches for the phrase between September and October each year.

As daylight hours decrease, many individuals find themselves grappling with the effects of SAD, a form of depression linked to changes in seasons, with winter being a particularly challenging period.

Georgina Sturmer, a counsellor who supports people through depression, anxiety, and other life difficulties, said:

“Physical activity offers benefits to our physical health, but it can also have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. When we use our bodies, stretch our muscles, and elevate our heartbeat, we are tuning into what our body needs. This helps us gain perspective and connect with the outside world.

Exercise can help reduce depression, which is the major feature of Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is partly due to the immediate mood-lifting powers of exercise. And it’s also partly down to the other features that accompany exercise. 

“For example, exercise might make us spend time outside in nature or connect with other people, which can help to ground us and reduce loneliness or isolation.

When we exercise, this can also have a positive impact on self-esteem, which can help combat negative thinking and self-criticism.”

“It can be hard to stay motivated when the weather gets cold and dark.  If you’re goal-oriented, then it might help you to have your ‘eyes on the prize’.

Try to build exercise into your social life; in the winter, it’s easy for socialising to turn towards nights out and festive binges, so consider suggesting to your friends that you head out for a walk, or a class at the gym, or participate in a challenge event together.”

For more information on this research and for additional winter workout tips, visit the research page from Better here: https://www.better.org.uk/lp/fitness-freeze

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