As the days shift to become shorter, darker and cooler, many people are wondering whether they should continue taking their daily walks outdoors.
Exercising in colder weather takes some extra planning, but for most healthy individuals, it can be done. Exercise outdoors safely by dressing in weather-appropriate clothing, drinking plenty of fluids and staying out of the wind and rain.
Here are 8 tips from experts on how to exercise outside in the cold season and stay safe and warm.
1. Check the weather conditions before heading out
The temperature, wind and moisture, along with the length of time that you’ll be outside, are key factors in planning a safe cold-weather workout.
When you exercise in winter, the wind can penetrate your clothes and remove the insulating layer of warm air that surrounds your body. Any exposed skin is vulnerable to frostbite.
Wind chill extremes can make exercising outdoors unsafe even with warm clothing. You should avoid exercise or physical activity when the temperature reaches zero or below zero F (minus 18 C), Mayo Clinic recommends.
If it’s too cold out, then perhaps consider a treadmill workout indoors until the weather gets better. Biking is another great way to exercise indoors: turn on your favorite music and head for a spin on an indoor bike.
Fitness wearables can help you track the weather conditions, monitor your personal statistics and help you find motivation to exercise.
2. Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia
Frostbite and hypothermia are serious conditions that can occur in cold weather. Learn more about frostbite and hypothermia so you can recognize them and stay safe when exercising outdoors.
Frostbite is a condition caused when your body tissues freeze and become damaged by the cold. It occurs most often in the fingers, toes or ear lobes, but can also affect the nose and cheeks when you’re exposed to freezing temperatures for extended periods of time. Early warning signs of frostbite include pins and needles, aching, throbbing and numbness in the affected area. Your skin may feel cold, numb and white.
It is important to keep an eye out for signs and symptoms of hypothermia while you are exercising so that you can respond quickly should someone – or yourself – experience symptoms. Helping that person warm up quickly can help prevent symptoms like memory loss, confusion, and loss of consciousness from getting worse. Common symptoms og hypothermia include: shivering, shallow breathing, weak pulse, lack of coordination, low energy, difficulties to concentrate. Get medical attention immediately if you suspect someone or yourself has hypothermia.
3. Dress in layers and wear dry and breathable materials
When it’s cold outside, you should bundle up to stay warm. However, the biggest mistake many people make when exercising outdoors in the cold is dressing too warmly. It’s important to find the right balance between fitness performance and warmth.
If it’s below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) wear layers of warm clothing that you can take off or put on as needed, including a windbreaker or rain jacket for warmth.
First, put on a thin layer of synthetic material, such as polypropylene, which draws sweat away from your body. Avoid cotton, which stays wet next to your skin. Next, add a layer of fleece or wool for insulation. Top this with a waterproof, breathable outer layer like Gore-Tex.
“Wet fabric next to your skin will zap your body heat and give you an unwanted chill,” says Jeff Galloway, a former Olympic runner and the author of Running: Getting Started.
Wear an extra layer of clothing inside a pair of insulated winter sports pants. You can decrease the risk of falling by wearing footwear that offers decent traction so that you can keep your balance on slippery surfaces like ice and wet leaves.
4. Protect your head, hands, ears and feet from frost
When it’s cold, blood flow is concentrated in your body’s core, leaving your head, hands and feet vulnerable to frostbite.
Dress for the weather and protect your core temperature by wearing a thin pair of glove liners made of a wicking material (such as polypropylene) under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens lined with wool or fleece.
Consider buying exercise shoes a half size or one size larger than usual to allow for thick thermal socks or an extra pair of regular socks. And don’t forget a hat to protect your head or headband to protect your ears, wearing a scarf or ski mask to cover your face.
5. Wear safety gear and sunscreen
Poor visibility from rain, snow, or dark skies makes it tougher for other motorists, riders, and pedestrians to see you. Choose brightly colored gear and wear reflective gear whenever possible to increase visibility.
The best lights are bright and have a red light mode as well as some sort of blinking feature, so they won’t blind or annoy those around you. There are even headbands that have tiny LEDs built in so that you can keep your hands free. And don’t forget the batteries – make sure they’re fresh and ready to go before heading out for your daily walk or run.
It’s as easy to get sunburned in winter as in summer — even more so if you’re exercising in the snow or at high altitudes.
Snow reflects up to 80 percent of UV rays, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, so when there’s snow out you’re hit by many of the same rays twice. If you’re skiing or snowboarding in the mountains, your risk of sunburn is even higher.
Before heading out for a winter workout (no matter the elevation), apply sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to your face and any other skin that will be exposed—even if you’re planning to wear clothes that cover your body. Protect your eyes from snow and ice glare with dark glasses or goggles.
Also, be sure to let someone know your exercise route and your expected return time, in case something does go wrong, and be reachable via phone.
6. Warm up first
When the weather gets cold, you may want to exercise outdoors but don’t forget to make sure that your body is warmed up properly with some low-impact warm-up exercises. That’s because you are at an increased risk for sprains and strains when exercising in colder temperatures.
Colder weather requires a longer warm-up before exercising. Dynamic warm-ups increase blood flow and temperature in the muscles which, in turn, helps decrease the risk of injuries.
The best dynamic warm-up for you depends on what type of workout you’re doing, but for all warm-ups be sure they include low-intensity movements that mimic the exercise you’re about to perform.
7. Eat and drink appropriately
Before your workout and while you’re on the go, drink water or sports drinks to prevent dehydration.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade can be a great choice for endurance athletes who are working out for more than 90 minutes, as they have electrolytes and carbohydrates to help fuel the body when your glycogen stores run low.
Snack on easily digestible food such as energy bars and gels, sandwiches, trail mix, or fruit.
8. Don’t forget breathing
When the temperature drops, it can feel like you’re unable to breathe. Avoid dry, uncomfortable breathing or the risk of getting a cold by wrapping a thin layer of fabric around your mouth. This will keep moisture in as you exercise so that you don’t have to work so hard to get enough oxygen.
For those with bronchitis symptoms, environmental factors, such as extreme heat and cold, increase the likelihood of breathing complications. Make sure to check with your doctor first if you have certain conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis, heart problems to avoid medical complications.