If you gain weight in winter, try spending more time in the sun at this time of year to boost your vitamin D levels
A study from the University of Alberta suggests we gain weight in winter because we lack exposure to sunshine; one answer is to step up outdoor exercise at this time of year – perfect in usually balmy Hong Kong
True or false: Can sunlight stave off winter weight gain?
The short answer: Yes
Do your clothes feel a little tighter now that we’re nearing the end of winter? It is tempting to blame all those Christmas treats and rich holiday spreads you feasted on during the festive season, but a recent study out of the University of Alberta in Canada suggests that extra weight you pile on during the winter could be due to a lack of sunshine.
The human body loves the sun – in reasonable amounts, of course. Our bare skin synthesises large amounts of vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun’s UVB rays, so it’s no surprise that vitamin D is also called the “sunshine” vitamin.
In addition to helping with calcium absorption and bone growth, this fat-soluble vitamin aids in normal immune system function, fights disease, and helps ward off depression. But there is another important function that can be attributed to vitamin D: weight loss.
The University of Alberta study, published in Scientific Reports (an online, open-access journal from the publishers of Nature) in November 2017, revealed that the fat cells beneath our skin shrink when exposed to the sun’s blue light wavelengths (the light that is visible to the human eye).
Peter Light, the study’s senior author and professor of pharmacology and director of the university’s Alberta Diabetes Institute, says when these wavelengths penetrate our skin and reach the fat cells just beneath, lipid droplets reduce in size and are released out of the cell. In short, our cells don’t store as much fat.
Previous studies have provided insight into the link between low vitamin D levels and obesity, so the University of Alberta research makes sense.
Apart from watching what you eat, one solution to stave off winter weight gain, then, might be to get outside to bask in the sunshine. Running, hiking, power walking, cycling, and other cardiovascular activity outdoors has a double benefit: it torches calories, and exposes your skin to sunlight.
Just remember to expose as much of your arms or legs as possible, while preventing sunburn and skin damage. Avoid heading out between 10am and 4pm, because that is when the sun’s rays are strongest – even when it is overcast.
Of course, on a frigid morning, who would willingly leave their warm bed to don a couple of layers of clothing and brave bone-chilling winds? If your answer is, “Not me”, you may want to take a tip from public relations consultant Nick Kearns, who says it takes more than low temperatures to keep him off Hong Kong’s picturesque hiking trails at dawn.
“The months between November and February are indeed cooler than the rest of the year, but I think that’s the best time to be out hiking,” says the 34-year-old, who has lived in Hong Kong for two-and-a- half years.
“To begin with, you have low humidity levels and it’s not hot, but there’s also less chance of rain, so you can hike longer distances and get through more challenging routes. Plus, compared to the warmer months, there’s a lower risk of becoming tired and dehydrated,” Kearns says. “It’s definitely worthwhile putting up with those few minutes of discomfort early in the morning, because you reap huge rewards at the end. I find that when I exercise outdoors right after I wake up, I feel amazing for the rest of the day.”
If you need extra encouragement to head outside on a cold morning, Andrea Ramirez, Flextreme programme director at Flex Studio, suggests creating an inspiring fitness mood board or Pinterest board.
“Choose pictures that get you in the mood for exercise, and look at them the night before your workout,” she advises. “This keeps your fitness goals at the forefront of your mind, which in turn has a motivating effect.”
Alternatively, you might consider joining an exercise group. Not only will you have company so you won’t have to tough it out alone in the cold, you also get to connect with like-minded people.
Partnering with a workout buddy also helps: someone who will hold you accountable for showing up on time and completing your workout, and who will push you to keep going when you feel like giving up.
If you have trouble waking up early in the morning, Ramirez suggests using your favourite song as an alarm. “This motivates me to get out of bed and I find that there’s no need to hit the snooze button,” she says.
Planning ahead also works. This might entail scheduling your morning workouts in your personal calendar or writing the week’s fitness goals where you can easily see them.
Ultimately, getting out of a warm, cosy bed on a chilly morning is a case of mind over matter. “Once you think of exercise as a way to feel good – it boosts the production of ‘happy’ hormones, or endorphins, in the body – and view it as an easy way to reduce pain and get healthy from the inside out, you’ll be raring to get dressed, head out and move your body,” says Ramirez.