How to Safely Exercise in Cold Weather

Staying active has numerous health benefits all year long—from the dog days of summer to the chilliest stretches of winter.

But when cold temperatures set in for days at a time, it’s easy to lose some of the motivation it takes to really stick to your fitness regimen. Days of dreary weather can make it hard to muster up the focus to work out, even if you stay indoors. Plus, piles of snow and ice might deter you from heading to your local gym.

And, for many people, the desire to exercise runs up against a common question: “How do I exercise in cold temperatures safely?”

“Can I Exercise Outdoors In the Winter?”

Exercising outdoors in the wintertime may not be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, plenty of people would just prefer to stay inside, preferably with a real cup of tea.

But research suggests that those who brave the cold may actually be in for some major health benefits. For instance, prominent studies have shown that exercising in cold temperatures can help you burn fat and calories more quickly. And as the American Heart Association (AHA) points out, heading outside for exercise in the wintertime may just help you to:

  • Feel more awake and invigorated
  • Gain some valuable sun exposure, and increase your vitamin D levels
  • Exercise for longer, without the stressors of heat and humidity
  • Give your immune system a boost, to help counteract the threats of cold and flu season

Now, with that said, exercising in colder temperatures can also pose some unique risks. It’s certainly not for everyone. If you have a chronic health condition, such as asthma or a heart condition, it’s important to talk with your doctor before attempting any type of cold weather exercise regimen. And no matter your health background or experience level, if you choose to go outdoors to exercise in winter, it’s important to be aware of your health needs, to do some research ahead of time, and to take a few crucial steps to stay safe.

So, how can you work on your fitness goals as the thermometer plunges? Courtesy of the Mayo Clinic and the National Institute of Health (NIH), here are a few guidelines to staying safe and warm when you exercise in cold weather:

1.) Check Weather Conditions Before You Go

Before you head outside, be sure to check on the weather factors that might affect you, including temperature, moisture, and wind.

Air temperature is vital. According to the Mayo Clinic, the risk of frostbite is less than five percent when the air temperature is above 5 degrees Fahrenheit, but increases the lower the temperature goes. For that reason, if air temperature falls below five degrees, consider staying indoors.

Wind chill, the condition and feeling created by the combination of high winds and cold temperatures, also plays a major factor. If the wind chill is extreme, avoid exercising outdoors. Per the Mayo Clinic, if the wind chill level falls below -18°F (below minus/negative 18 degrees Fahrenheit), people can start to develop frostbite on their exposed skin in thirty minutes or less.

Finally, watch out for precipitation. Snow, rain, and ice can all make streets and sidewalks hazardous. And if you get wet while you run, you’re more susceptible to the harmful effects of the cold.

2.) Know the Warning Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia

Being outdoors in colder conditions can put you at risk for a few unique problems, including hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls below a healthy level. Symptoms include:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • Mental fatigue and confusion

Frostbite, meanwhile, occurs when a part of your body begins to freeze, due to exposure to frigid temperatures. Early warning signs of frostbite might include:

  • Numbness
  • Lack of feeling
  • Painful itching or stinging sensation
  • Skin discoloration

It’s important to know these warning signs. If at any point you’re worried about your health or safety, be sure to seek shelter indoors. Should you suspect that you may be suffering from hypothermia or frostbite, proceed somewhere warm and seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

And if you feel that the weather, or your health background, might increase your risk or susceptibility for one of these health conditions, you may want to find an alternative way to stay active, without heading outdoors. It’s also important to speak to a medical professional before starting any serious course of exercise or significantly changing your current routine.

3.) Layer Up

What’s the best way to dress when you head outdoors in the wintertime? If you’re going to be moving around and staying active, experts recommend dressing in layers.

Specifically, the NIH recommends wearing several layers of loose clothing, which you can remove as your body begins to heat up, and then put back on as necessary.

While many people’s first instinct is to bundle up extensively, health experts warn that dressing too warmly may actually cause you to sweat more, which will ultimately result in your feeling more chilled. Similarly, wearing clothing that is too tight or constricting can affect your circulation, causing you to lose body heat more quickly.

Loose layers can actually help trap more heat. The Mayo Clinic recommends starting with a sweat-wicking synthetic material, then adding a layer of an insulated material, such as fleece or wool, and finishing with a waterproof outer layer.

4.) Cover Your Extremities

The parts of your body most vulnerable to frostbite are the ones furthest from your core—your head, ears, feet, and hands. Before you head outside to exercise, think about how best to protect these sensitive areas.

Gloves can help protect your hands and fingers from cold air and moisture. For your feet, the Mayo Clinic recommends stocking up on a pair of winter running shoes a half-size larger than your usual fit so that you can protect your feet with insulated thermal socks, which tend to be thicker than normal socks. In a pinch, layering multiple pairs of socks can also help.

Finally, a winter hat, headband, or ear muffs can help protect your ears, while a scarf or thermal half mask can help cover your mouth, nose, and cheeks.

5.) Bring Your Safety Gear

Think about the specialized gear or equipment that could help you stay safe in the winter weather. Here are a few expert-approved ideas to get you started:

  • Sunscreen for your exposed skin. Did you know that it’s actually just as easy to get sunburned in the winter as in the summer?
  • Reflective gear if you’re exercising at night. This goes for bikers, joggers, and walkers.
  • Shoes with traction to avoid slips and falls in wintry conditions.
  • Wear a helmet and goggles if you’re going skiing or snowboarding.
  • Consider bringing along portable hand warmers. There are many different brands of chemical and all-natural heat packs you can bring along and store in your pockets or a bag when not in use.

6.) Stay Hydrated

Many people associate working out in the summertime with guzzling down water. And while drinking plenty of fluids is a good rule of thumb for warm weather workouts, it’s just as important to get proper hydration before, during, and after your winter exercise routine.

During a cold weather workout, you’re likely to sweat and breathe heavily, all while also facing the drying effects of a cold wind. Even if you’re not feeling thirsty, be sure to drink water at key stages pre- and post-workout. Health and fitness website ACTIVE recommends hydrating with room temperature beverages, and adding drinks with electrolytes and carbohydrates (such as juice or certain sports drinks) after more than an hour of cold weather exercise. For more thorough guidelines on staying hydrated while exercising, read on here.

7.) Warm Up Well

Cold weather can cause your muscles and joints to tighten, and can affect your circulation and breathing. Before heading out to exercise in the cold, fitness experts recommend taking plenty of time to stretch, get your blood pumping, and generally warm up your muscles and joints.

Here’s how fitness trainer Ariane Hundt put it to NBC News:

“If you opt to warm-up inside, try dynamic stretches, meaning you move the body through a full range of motion, rather than holding stretches statically . . . You can also do a mini-version of the workout you have planned outside, such as squats, push-ups, and planks for 5 minutes, before heading out for a park boot camp workout.”

It may take some time to find the warm-up that works best for you, but it’s important to have one. Your body will thank you later.

How Do You Get Things Moving in Colder Weather?

And now, the Enrollment Specialists would love to hear from you. Do you have any strategies you use to stay active in the colder season? Is there a winter workout that you can’t wait to return to every year? Be sure to join our community on Facebook to tell us your favorites.

For many people, the cold and dreary winter months are a great time to stay indoors—and spend some time checking up on and researching their health and life insurance. If you’re looking for someone to help you through the ever-changing world of healthcare, Matt Peebles and the Enrollment specialists would love to help. Drop us a line today to get the conversation started.

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