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How to Stay Motivated to Work Out When It's Cold, Dark and Miserable

author image K. Aleisha Fetters
K. Aleisha Fetters is a health and fitness writer. She holds a master’s degree in New Media from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (C.S.C.S.) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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How to Stay Motivated to Work Out When It's Cold, Dark and Miserable
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Let’s be honest: When the weather outside is frightful, you just want to be inside. The colder and darker the days get, the less and less you feel like hitting the gym, which is totally merited. After all, the winter brings on a decline in vitamin D and serotonin levels — not to mention the increase in levels of drowse-inducing melatonin — that can make just getting to the gym feel like a workout in itself, explains Barbara Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist with the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati. Put these tips into practice, though, and there’s no way winter will stand between you and your workout commitments.

1. Put the Thermostat on a Timer
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1 Put the Thermostat on a Timer

Can we all agree that trying to get out of your warm, cozy bed on a cold winter day is the worst thing ever? Ease the pain — and the temptation to snooze through your morning workouts — by setting your thermostat so that your house starts warming up about an hour before wakeup time, recommends personal trainer Lisa Niren, CPT, an instructor at CycleBar and CITYROW in New York City. While, according to the National Sleep Foundation, bedroom temps of 60 to 67 are ideal for sleep, higher temps (or a warmed home) can promote wakefulness and help you get out of bed in the morning.

2. Get Outside
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2 Get Outside

Yes, even if that means snot-cicles form in your nostrils. Regularly spending time in nature — no matter the season — is vital to keeping your energy levels up and you in the right mindset to stick with your workouts, says personal trainer Lisa Niren, CPT, an instructor at CycleBar and CITYROW in New York City. In fact, research from the University of Michigan shows that getting out in chilly 25-degree temps boosts cognitive function just as well as doing so on 80-degree days. Just make sure you’ve got the gear to keep you safe and warm, whatever the weather.

3. Try Something New
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3 Try Something New

“Think of winter as a chance to take a break from your regular workout and keep things interesting,” says Barbara Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist with the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati. “For example, if you usually run, this is a great time to strength train.” After all, switching up your workout routine every six to eight weeks can help prevent plateaus and boredom, she says. Plus, simply taking your outdoor workouts indoors can feel like a bummer.

4. Hit the Lights!
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4 Hit the Lights!

If you have trouble making your early-morning workouts because it still looks like the middle of the night outside, ’tis the season to gift yourself a light-emitting alarm clock, says NYC-based personal trainer Lisa Niren, CPT. These clocks gradually increase the amount of light in your bedroom over the course of 30 minutes before sounding. That way, when it’s actually time to wake up, you’ve already basked in wakefulness-promoting, short-wavelength (aka blue) light, she says. In one International Journal of Endocrinology study, subjects who woke up to bright, short-wavelength light exhibited hormone levels that were significantly more conducive to getting up and at ’em.

Related: Philips -- Light Therapy

5. Kick the Low-Carb Diet
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5 Kick the Low-Carb Diet

During the winter, levels of mood-boosting serotonin can drop along with the daylight, partially explaining the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that stand between many exercisers and their fitness habits, says Los Angeles-based trainer Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of “Lift to Get Lean.” “Luckily, you can definitely hack your serotonin levels nutritionally,” she says. In fact, a series of studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that carbohydrate intake can promote healthy serotonin levels and that insufficient carbohydrate intake is actually related to SAD and other depressive symptoms like fatigue. Perkins recommends turning to whole carbs like oats, sweet potatoes, brown rice and fruits for your serotonin boost. Bonus: They’ll help fuel your workouts for better results.

6. Sign Up for a Competition
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6 Sign Up for a Competition

Whether you register for an indoor triathlon, powerlifting meet or spring race, having a goal (and a deadline) will help keep you motivated and looking ahead with your workouts, says Lisa Niren, CPT, an instructor at CycleBar and CITYROW in New York City. Specific goals — like completing a St. Patty’s race on March 17 — are much more motivating than vague ones without deadlines, according to research from the University of Maryland. Opt to train for an event at which you feel reasonably capable. Confidence in your ability is the number-one determiner of how hard and often you work out, according to one Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise review.

7. Take a Heated Class
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7 Take a Heated Class

If you’ve been curious about hot yoga, now’s the season to check it out, says Barbara Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist with the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, if yoga isn’t your thing, you can also get your sweat on with heated Spin, TRX and barre classes. “The high-temp classes can be a welcome break from the cold outside,” she says. Bonus: The accountability of group classes can give you the extra dose of motivation you need to brave the elements to and from the gym.

8. Post a Pic on Your Fridge
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8 Post a Pic on Your Fridge

According 2015 research published in the journal Memory, simply recalling an awesome workout experience can significantly boost your motivation to hit the gym today. Try posting a picture of yourself from a past fun run or even a gym selfie (like the one you took after mastering your first pull-up!) to your refrigerator, recommends Kansas City-based exercise physiologist Greg Justice, CPT, author of “Mind Over Fatter.” It’ll help keep you tuned in to how fun fitness can be — and how fit you were over the summer.

9. Watch Some Reruns
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9 Watch Some Reruns

It might sound silly, but if you find yourself trapped on the “dreadmill” this winter, tuning to some of your favorite reruns can help boost your workout willpower, according to a 2012 University of Buffalo study. Researchers believe that your favorite fictional characters serve as surrogate workout buddies. That’s good news if your friends don’t share your enthusiasm for sweating it out this winter.

10. ID Your True “Why”
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10 ID Your True “Why”

All of the motivation tricks in the world won’t get you to the gym season after season if you haven’t figured out your deep-down reason for being active, says Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of “Lift to Get Lean.” “You have to be 100 percent connected to your ‘why,’” she says. Think through the most meaningful reason (or reasons) you want to be consistent with your workouts over the winter — and then write them down. Keep your reasons displayed on your nightstand or snap a photo of them to use as your phone background, she says.

What Do YOU Think?
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What Do YOU Think?

How does your motivation fare when the temperature plummets and the days get shorter? Will you try any of these motivation tips this winter? Got any more that we need to know about? Share your best advice here!

Related: 9 Tough-Love Tactics That Will Help You Reach Your Goals

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