Safe winter workouts

During the winter months, many people balk “it’s too cold out to exercise.” But outdoor winter workouts can be safe and comfortable. In fact, for competitive athletes, it might even give you an advantage. Unlike working out in the heat, exercising in the cold won’t impact your performance, unless you expend energy by shivering. Check with your doctor about working out outside if you have problems with your circulation, or any other health issues.

Dress for success
The secret to making a winter workout bearable is wearing the appropriate apparel. The right clothes can make the difference between a good exercise session and a dangerous one. Here are some things to keep in mind when you dress your body:

Layer up. Layers of thin clothing work better at keeping you warm than one piece of thick clothing. Dressing in layers also gives you the option to shed some clothes if the temperature goes up. Follow these guidelines when dressing in layers:
The first layer against your skin should be made of a “wicking” material. When sweat stays on your body and evaporates, it cools you off. Wicking clothes absorb sweat to stop this from happening, which helps you stay warm. Clothes made of polyester, polypropylene, silk, or wool are good choices for first layers. Make sure clothing fits snugly to prevent cold air from getting in. Avoid wearing cotton sweats because they retain water, which can make you colder.
The second layer should be thicker to help insulate you. Choose clothes made of synthetic fibers, such as fleece.
For the third layer, choose a windproof, breathable fabric that shields you from the wind and rain. Cold rain and wind can make the temperature feel much colder than it actually is, so this layer will help keep you warm.
Protect your hands, feet, and face. When it’s very cold out, take the same layering approach on your hands and feet that you did on the rest of your body. First, put on gloves and socks made of wicking material and then put a thicker, synthetic pair of gloves and socks over that. Protect your nose and mouth by wearing a ski mask.
Wear protective goggles. When out in the cold wind – or when skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling – protect your eyes.
Top it off with a hat. Around 30 percent to 40 percent of the heat from the body is lost through the head. Always wear a hat when you’re outside in the cold. Even if you wear a headband or earmuffs, you still need to wear a hat. Covering only your ears will not keep heat from escaping your head.
Use the indoors
Go inside often to warm up. And as soon as your workout ends, get inside and change out of your sweaty or wet clothing. Lingering in the cold after you’re done exercising ups your risk for frostbite and hypothermia.

Be wary of cold-weather health threats
Dressing right for winter weather is a must to help keep frostbite and hypothermia at bay. But it’s still important to know what warning signs to watch for. Both frostbite and hypothermia require immediate medical attention:

Frostbite is the freezing of your body’s tissue. It’s most likely to occur on your fingers, nose, toes, and ears. Symptoms include white or gray waxy skin, numbness, tingling, or pain. Frostnip is a milder form of cold injury.
Hypothermia is the cooling of your body’s temperature. Signs include shivering, uncoordinated movement, stumbling, or slurred speech.
Call 9-1-1 for any of the following:

Confusion, agitation, changes in consciousness, slurred speech, or lack of coordination
Seek emergency medical care for the following cold-related problems:

Inability to move a part of the body that has suffered a cold injury
A large area has frostbite
An area remains hard, cold, white, mottled, or blue after rewarming
Uncontrolled shivering
You have problems with your circulation or other medical issues and have suffered a cold injury
To rewarm an area that has frostnip or frostbite, follow these guidelines:

Immerse the body part in warm – but not hot – water. About 104 degrees F to 108 degrees F is ideal.
Apply warm compresses to affected areas like the face or ears.
Do not put snow on the injury, as this can cause damage.
Do not rub or massage the area.
Do not use a heat source such as a hair dryer or heating pad.
Keep the area protected and elevated.
Avoid drinking alcohol or smoking.
Call your doctor if the area does not get better after rewarming.

Don’t forget to hydrate
Just because it’s not hot and humid does not mean you can forget about hydrating. Dehydration is a concern during winter activity, too. You may not feel thirsty, but thirst is not a good indicator of hydration. And just because you don’t notice sweat, it doesn’t mean you aren’t sweating. Sweat evaporates quickly in cool, dry air. Take in about one cup of water for every 15 minutes of exercise.

Is it ever “too cold” to exercise?
The “too cold” threshold varies from person to person. Someone who is used to exercising in chilly weather will fare much better than someone who’s used to a warm climate.

When deciding if the weather is too cold for you, keep an eye on more than just the temperature. Precipitation and wind chill can make the outside air feel even colder than it is. Experts say being out in the cold is extremely dangerous when the temperature alone or temperature plus wind chill is minus 20 degrees F or below. But cold-weather health problems often occur at much warmer conditions, so take precautions. Do not re-expose a part of the body that has suffered a cold injury, because it is dangerous.

If the weather feels too cold to go outside for exercise, hit the gym or do a circuit workout in your own, warm living room. Circuit workouts typically involve exercises like jumping jacks, lunges, sit-ups, and push-ups. Always talk to your doctor before you start a new exercise routine.


St. John’s Hospital. Cold weather exercise. Accessed: 11/16/2010
National Strength and Conditioning Association. Preparing for cold weather exercise. Accessed: 11/16/2010
American Council on Exercise. Healthy hydration. Accessed: 11/16/2010
American Council on Exercise. Exercising in the cold. Accessed: 11/16/2010
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