With fall temperatures dipping lower and lower, it’s time to fatten up. Eat that third brat, chug a few heavy Oktoberfest beers and shovel an entire Ben and Jerry’s pint of Chunky Monkey down your throat. Winter is almost here, and it’s time to get soft.
“Gettin’ soft for the winter” is a common refrain you’ll hear in the parts of the country that are about to freeze over. We’re mammals, so the logic goes, and mammals add fat to their bodies to survive cold temperatures. Um, it’s only science. Right? RIGHT?
But before I give myself another reason to stuff 12 Oreos down my gullet on a nightly basis for the next few months, I asked Mark Leavey, a family physician in Maryland, and Abbey Sharpe, a registered dietitian in Toronto for a fact-check on the whole “gettin’ soft” thing.
To start, there is some logic to it. “For a while, many scientists believed that because fat acts as a type of insulation, it can help to regulate our temperature when we get cold,” Sharpe explains. In fact, a 2009 study found that long-distance open-water swimmers with a higher BMI were at a lower risk of hypothermia.
Case closed, right? Not quite. That study came under scrutiny when more recent studies discovered that a swimmer’s ability to survive cold temperatures are influenced by other factors beyond BMI. Plus, Leavey adds, the logic comparing humans to animals ignores the fact that animals who gain fat before winter don’t eat while they hibernate. “They need to store some energy for their winter snooze,” Leavey says. “Since we don’t do that, the logic of ‘getting soft for the winter’ completely falls apart.”
So is there anything I can do to keep warm this winter? According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, I should try the exact opposite of “gettin’ soft.” Because it’s not fat that regulates heat loss, but muscle mass. “People with more muscle mass are less susceptible to heat loss,” Sharpe explains, “and they can actually heat up faster in cold temperature compared to people with lower muscle mass.”
In other words, the more you exercise, the better your body is able to pump nice, hot blood to your frozen toes. “So during the winter months, maintain a healthy muscle mass by eating a variety of lean sources of protein — and don’t forget to include resistance training in your gym sessions to help build muscle mass,” Sharpe recommends.
Most of all, forget the delusion that “gettin’ soft for the winter” is anything other than unhealthy. “Medically, gaining weight is gaining weight,” Leavey explains. “If you exceed your optimal body weight, you can expect to have any and all problems that come with that weight gain — blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure are just a few of the system issues you could adversely effect by stocking away some belly fat.”
Beyond that, Sharpe warns that cyclically gaining and losing weight has been linked to a number of health concerns “so it’s best to keep activity and diet consistent throughout the year.”
Personally speaking, for the first time in my life, I made it to the gym on a regular basis last winter. I can’t recall being warmer or colder than in years past. I do, though, remember strapping ice-spikes to my sneakers in order to safely transport my frozen ass to the gym and stripping off multiple layers once I got into the salt-stained locker room. It was miserable, but as it turns out, very worth it.
So this winter, we’re not “gettin’ soft. No, this winter, we get hard.