Staying Fit

6 Tips for Cold-Weather Workouts

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By Christina Eyers, Ed.D., AT, ATC

Cold weather can derail even the most committed exercisers. In addition to the Herculean effort it requires to crawl out of a warm, toasty bed, inclement weather such as rain, sleet and snow presents particular safety challenges (black ice, hypothermia and frostbite, to name a few).

But even as potential hazards lurk in the streets (or on the trail) during the winter chill, cold-weather workouts boast benefits, too. Brisk weather can put a spring in your step, invigorate your senses, even stave off the blues. (Learn five ways to preempt seasonal affective disorder now.) In fact, studies show that outdoor exercise in any season can crank up energy levels and reduce tension.

Here, six tips to maximize comfort when you exercise outside:

  1. Pay attention to weather conditions. If the temperature dips below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, or there’s a severe wind chill, you might want to rethink your workout plans. Similarly, if it’s snowing, raining or conditions are icy, taking cover is a safer bet unless you have waterproof exercise attire (getting wet makes you more vulnerable to cold). Make sure you know the signs of hypothermia (shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination and fatigue) and frostbite (numbness, loss of feeling and stinging sensations).
  2. Dress in layers. Exercise generates heat, so it’s helpful if you can peel off a layer of clothing as your body warms up. The key to staying dry and comfortable is selecting the right materials for each layer. Start with a synthetic material like polypropylene, which wicks sweat away from your body (cotton stays soaked when it gets wet). Then add a layer of wool or fleece for insulation and top that with a waterproof outer layer.
  3. Accessorize. When temps drop, the body protects itself by sending blood to your core to keep your internal organs warm. Trouble is, that leaves your head, hands and feet vulnerable to the cold. Before you head outdoors, consider sporting a pair of glove liners made of a wicking material (like polypropylene) underneath a pair of fleece or wool mittens. Once the sweat sets in, you can remove the mittens and stick with the gloves. Wear a hat to protect your head (50 percent of your body head is lost from an uncovered head), and a loose scarf over your nose and mouth to protect your lungs (by warming frigid air before you inhale). You might also consider wearing reflective gear (so drivers can spot you at night) and grip covers over your shoes, which provide traction on icy surfaces to prevent slips and falls.
  4. Don’t forget to warm up — and cool down. No matter the outdoor temperature, warming up and cooling down are key components of a healthy workout. Ensuring the body is loose, limber and warm not only maximizes performance but can help prevent twists, sprains and other injuries. Cooling down, meanwhile, helps reduce tightness that arises in the chilly air. Depending on the length and intensity of your workout, a warm-up routine might be as simple as a few solid stretches before heading outdoors, followed by a gradual increase in walking/running pace. Ready to cool down? Reverse the order of the routine (so you stretch after you come inside).
  5. Drink up. Even though you may not feel thirsty, it’s important to stay hydrated when you exercise. Sweating, breathing and the drying winter wind all rob your body of needed water. Replenish your stores by drinking before, during and after exercise to protect the body from injury and stay warm throughout your workout.
  6. Head into the wind. If the temperature is below your comfort zone, arrange your route so the wind is at your back during the second half of your workout. That way, once you’ve worked up a sweat, you’re less likely to get chilled because your exposed, damp face will be heading the same direction as the wind, not into it.

Don’t underestimate the physical gains from wintertime activities. Snowboarding, skiing, sledding and even shoveling snow burns calories. The key, of course, is to get moving. Just check with your doctor before embarking on a winter workout regimen. While most people can exercise safely in the cold, people who have asthma, heart disease or Raynaud’s disease may be better off indoors.

For more tips to getting moving, including ideas for making the most of a treadmill time or advice on the potential pitfalls of fitness trackers, check out our other fitness posts in the MoveWell section.