HEALTH: 5 Exercises and Stretches to Stay Safe in the Cold

The worst of the winter is behind us, but there are still many cold months ahead.  Muscles tense up because of cold weather, arthritis symptoms worsen because of drops in air pressure, and more falls occur due to ice and snow on the ground.  Fortunately, there are a few key exercises and stretches that you can do to strengthen up your muscles, improve your balance and reduce your risk of injury.  Below is a list of 5 key exercises and stretches to keep your body safe in the cold, along with a description of how to do them properly.  Remember that it’s important to ease into the stretch and hold it, without any bouncing or quick movements.  Stretches are usually better tolerated if the body is warm, so after exercising or after a hot shower is generally the best time to stretch!
1. Single leg stance
Why? The ability to balance on one leg has been shown to decrease the risk of falls, and improve body awareness.  It also helps lower your chance of getting an ankle sprain.
How to do it: Stand with your feet about hip width apart, then slowly lift one leg so that the foot is completely off the ground.  Stand by a wall or chair and use one finger to help balance yourself if you feel unstable.  Hold this position for a minimum of 20 seconds, and then repeat on the opposite side.  To make it harder, you can stand on an unstable surface (like a pillow or towel) or close your eyes. Perform this exercise 5 times every day.
2. Hip bridges
Why? Hip bridges help to engage all of the muscles in the back part of your hips and legs, which are weaker than the muscles in the front.  People with strong hip muscles are also steadier, as they are able to support their knees better and center their weight over their pelvis.
How to do it: Start lying down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat. From here, slowly push through your heels and lift your hips up as high as they can go so that your buttocks and low back clear the floor.  Gently lower the hips down so they just hover over the floor, then raise them up again. Repeat 15 times. To make it harder, try doing it with one leg completely lifted off the floor so all your weight is focused on the other leg. This exercise can be repeated 2 times every day.
3. Step-ups
Why? Step-ups strengthen all of the muscles in your lower body, and are helpful for functional movements like standing from a seated position, doing stairs, or walking in high snow.
How to do it: Stand with your feet about hip width apart at the bottom of either a low riser, or the bottom step of a staircase.  Slowly bring your right foot up and place it flat on the step. Push through your right heel as you straighten your right knee and bring your left foot to meet your right foot so you are standing on the step.  Step down with one leg and then the other (the order doesn’t matter) and then repeat 10 times per side.  Hold on to the wall or handrail for support if you feel unsteady.  To make it harder, hold weights in your hands, or increase the height of the step. You can repeat this exercise 2 times every day.
4. Calf stretch
Why? Winter boots often have a heel to them which points your foot downward and causes tension in the calf muscles.  These muscles also tend to cramp or spasm when the weather is colder.
How to do it: With your hands on a wall, get into a stride position with your tight leg forward.  Your toes should be on the wall, and the heel should be on the floor, so the foot is positioned at an incline.  Slowly lean forward, bringing your hips to the wall to intensify the stretch.  Hold for a minimum of 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.  This stretch can be done 3-4 times a day.
5. Upper trapezius stretch
Why? This muscle tends to get extremely tight in winter because of people constantly shrugging their shoulders to their ears to keep their necks warm.
How to do it: Sit down on a chair with one hand under your hips.  Slowly bring the opposite ear to your shoulder, and give an extra pull on the side of your head to intensify the stretch.  Hold this for 30 seconds, then slowly ease out of the position and repeat on the other side. Do this stretch 4-5 times a day.
About the Author

Zach Chan is a registered physiotherapist and contemporary acupuncture practitioner.  In addition to fitness and strength training, Zach specializes in treating sports injuries, pre/post-surgical rehabilitation, paediatrics, and concussion rehabilitation.  He works in Cloud Care Clinics in downtown Toronto, and runs his own homecare practice.  Zach is also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto. An avid traveller, Zach lived in Hiroshima, Japan for a year and is fluent in Japanese.
For more expert advice on exercises, stretches, or health please contact Zach Chan (physiotherapist) at 647-468-0073, or