During the summer months, it’s not hard to get out there and exercise. Sunshine and warm weather are enticing, and most of us enjoy going for a jog, taking a bike ride, hiking our favorite trails, or simply taking an afternoon walk.
It’s harder in the winter. Biting winds, dry air, and icy snow compel us to stay inside our heated homes. Not only are the dropping temperatures uncomfortable, they can be dangerous, too. There’s hypothermia, frostbite, and viruses to worry about.
Yet the benefits of outdoor exercise are undeniable. Few would argue that getting at least a little fresh air is preferable to miles on a treadmill in the middle of a sweaty gym. Research, too, confirms that outdoor exercise is better for our overall health and well-being.
So how can we continue to enjoy our outdoor workouts without risking injury, illness, or even just an hour’s worth of misery?
The Health Benefits of Winter Outdoor Exercise
It may be hard to imagine on a cold winter’s day that going outside could be good for you. After all, didn’t Mom say you’d catch your death if you ventured out?
In most cases, though, as long as we take the right precautions, it’s true. Here are some of the reasons why.
- Banish winter blues: Winter can get a little too dark for all of us; particularly those who live in the northern latitudes. We have fewer hours of daylight, which means less exposure to the sun. That can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the “winter blues,” where we just don’t feel as chipper as usual. It can also reduce our levels of vitamin D, which are critical to overall health.
- Ease stress and tension: Exercising in the park, on the trail, or over the greenway is better for our health overall. In a 2011 study review, researchers discovered that compared to exercising indoors, exercising in natural, outdoor environments increased energy and improved mental well-being, while decreasing tension, anger, and depression. Participants also said they enjoyed it more, and would like to do it again, making them more likely to stick with their exercise routines.
- Get a better workout: Studies have found that when we exercise outside, we stress our muscles differently than we do when working out on a treadmill or exercise bike. We flex our ankles more, use more muscles to go up and down hills, and exert ourselves more as we work against ground and wind resistance.
- Workout longer: When exercising outside, we’re likely to workout longer because we enjoy it more. In a 2012 study in which participants wore activity monitors, researchers found that those who were physically active outside clocked an average of 30 minutes more exercise each week than those who exercised inside.
- Burn more fat: Some studies have suggested that exercising in the cold weather may help us to burn more fat. In 2014, for example, researchers found that exposure to cold temperatures converted “white” fat tissue to the more active “brown” fat that burns calories for heat.
These all provide powerful arguments for exercising outdoors, but there are some risks we have to be aware of, too.
Potential Dangers of Outdoor Workouts
When temperatures drop to an uncomfortable level—at around freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit)—there are some dangers to exercising outside.
First, let’s talk about the immune system. Your mom used to warn you not to go out in the cold because you might catch a cold. Though exercise boosts the immune system in general, if you go out in the winter, it could have the opposite effect.
Research published in PloS One, for example, showed that when participants exercised in 72 degrees, they experienced a boosted immune response, but when they exercised in 32 degrees, that response was suppressed. Those who spent time in the cold before exercising, however, to the point of shivering, didn’t see this response.
An earlier 2011 study found similar results, with participants who exercised at about 41 degrees experiencing reduced immune activity and increased susceptibility to infection. The immune system is complicated and we need more studies to determine exactly how it responds and under what conditions, but one thing that’s clear is that we need to find ways to stay warm when we’re working out.
There are a few other hazards of cold-weather exercising, including the following:
The concern here is for small, exposed body parts like the fingers, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin. The body works hard to keep internal organs and your head warm first, which means peripheral areas (including even covered toes) may suffer.
Early symptoms include numbness, redness, and pain, and later symptoms include skin warmness, stinging, and paleness. It usually takes low temps (below freezing) to cause frostbite, but remember to factor in wind chill.
The outdoor temperature may not be bad, but wind chill can take you into frostbite danger temperatures. In temperatures of 35 degrees Fahrenheit, for instance, with winds at 15 miles per hour, frostbite can settle in at 30 minutes exposure without the proper precautions.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops below normal. At that point, the body loses warmth faster than it produces it, which creates a medical emergency. Suddenly the heart and other organs can’t work as they normally do. Wearing inadequate clothing, and being exposed to cold air, wind, and rain can increase risk.
Early symptoms include shivering, dizziness, nausea, fast heart rate, clumsiness, lack of coordination, fatigue, and trouble speaking. Hypothermia affects different people at different times. Age, alcohol consumption, wetness, and body fat can all affect how long it takes to settle in.
Cardiologists warn their patients to be careful in harsh winter conditions. Cold air causes blood vessels to narrow, restricting blood flow, straining the circulatory system, and reducing oxygen supply to the heart.
As a result, the heart has to work harder. This can result in a higher blood pressure rate and a heart rate increase. If you’re healthy, these won’t cause you any issues, but if you have high blood pressure, angina, or other forms of cardiovascular disease, and you’re not used to exercising outside, activity in cold temps can increase risk of heart attack and stroke.
Watch for warning signs like chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden dizziness, and nausea and vomiting.
If you have allergies or asthma, exercising in cold temperatures can increase risk of an attack. Cold, dry air requires the lungs to work harder, and can trigger asthma symptoms. Exposure to allergens outdoors can also encourage an allergy attack. In either case, early symptoms may include a tight feeling in the throat and/or chest, a feeling of not getting enough air, wheezing, and lightheadedness.
20 Tips to Protect Yourself and Stay Safe
It’s important to be careful when you exercise outside in the winter. Take the appropriate precautions to keep yourself warm, and ask your doctor about any conditions you may have that could create additional risks for you. If you have high blood pressure, for instance, you’ll want to start out slow, and gradually increase your exercise time, to allow your system to adapt.
You don’t have to be afraid of cold weather exercise, though. Remember all the benefits we mentioned above. Getting out for just 30 minutes can help you feel a lot better the rest of the day.
Invest in some warm clothing, check the weather conditions, and know your limits. You may find that once you get out there a few times, you’ll look forward to that quiet walk in the park with the snow covering the ground.
Winter has its own charms, after all. Why not get out and enjoy them?
- Watch the Weather
Though it’s usually healthy to exercise outdoors, there are limits. If you’ve got a big storm coming in, get your workout done beforehand. Avoid going out in extreme low temperatures and high winds.
Enjoy the outdoors, but respect Mother Nature, as she can turn on you quickly. Keep your eye on the forecast and go when it’s safe. The U.S. National Safety Council states that exercising in 20 degrees Fahrenheit is usually safe, but that when temperatures drop below -20, dangers increase.
- Exercise with the Sun
Conditions get much more miserable once the sun has gone down. Try to arrange your schedule so you’re working out in the daytime.
- Plan Your Route
Know where you’re going and how long it’s likely to take you. Try to make sure you have potential stopping places along the way. Cafes, gas stations, and department stores make good resting places if you start to get too cold or winded.
It’s also wise to have a shortcut you can take if the weather turns on you.
- Wear Mittens
Keeping your fingers together can help keep them warm and reduce risk of cold, numbness, and frostbite. Your best bet in really cold weather is to wear a thin pair underneath a heavier pair to protect your hands from the elements.
Choose a moisture-wicking fabric for the inner layer, and something heavier and more insulating (like wool) for the outer layer. If it’s wet outside, be extra careful. Wetness increases chill. Use a waterproof material for the outer layer.
- Dress in Layers
You’re going to be colder starting out than you will be once you’re been exercising for awhile. The danger is that you’ll sweat, that sweat will evaporate, and then you’ll feel chilled. The answer is to dress in layers so you can remove and add-on as needed.
Start out with all layers intact, remove some as you get warm, and then put them back on when you start to feel cold again. As with your mittens, be sure to have a waterproof outer layer if it’s raining or snowing.
Don’t forget tights—your legs need the warmth as much as your torso. Look for cold-weather leggings.
- Be Picky About Materials
Cotton clothes will soak up perspiration and then remain wet next to your skin, reducing your body temperature. Whatever layer you put on first, make sure it’s made of a synthetic material that wicks sweat away from your skin.
Tight clothing is also better than loose, as it will stay closer to your skin and keep you warmer. Then add an insulating layer (like fleece), and top it off with a weather-resistant, waterproof outer layer.
- Double-Up On Socks
Treat your feet like your hands—with at least two layers. You may need to use a larger size of shoes that will accommodate the extra pair. Again, use a moisture-wicking material for the inner sock, and a heavier insulating layer for the outer pair.
Consider taller, knee-high socks (like ski socks) to keep calves warm in freezing temperatures.
- Protect Your Head
Most of our body heat escapes through the head, which makes your hat especially important. Look for those made with insulating, wind-blocking materials, and avoid those that make you sweat as you’ll end up chilled.
Your best bet are hats made specifically for exercising in cold weather.
- Consider a Mask
Everyone needs to wear a hat when exercising in the cold, but if you have allergies or asthma, you may want one of those that covers your nose and mouth, too. Having a layer of insulation there can help warm the air before it hits your lungs. Scarves can be uncomfortable when running, for instance, so a ski-mask type of hat may work better for you.
- Warm Your Neck
If you don’t want to wear a mask or scarf, a fleece neck warmer can help keep your neck and chin warm, while also helping to warm air as it goes to your lungs. These can prevent those “burning lungs” many of us get when running in cold weather.
- Protect Your Ears
If your hat doesn’t cover your ears, be sure you wear a pair of earmuffs. Remember that your ears are one of the most vulnerable areas to frostbite (or even frostnip, the less severe form of cold damage).
- Don’t Forget Sunscreen
Even on a cloudy day, dangerous UV rays can damage your skin and set the stage for skin cancer years later. Cover all exposed areas with SPF 30 or higher. Don’t forget your lips!
- Wear Sunglasses
UV rays are also damaging to the eyes, and are believed to be the number-one cause of cataracts. Sunlight glaring off snow is particularly dangerous. Choose a pair of sunglasses that guarantees broad-spectrum protection and wear them throughout your workout. If it’s cloudy out, you may want a pair of brown or orange lenses to be sure you can see well.
- Avoid Chafing
Exercising creates sweat, which can cause chafing. Look for anti-friction creams and anti-chaffing balms to protect your skin.
- Don’t Slip
If it’s icy out, you need to be sure you don’t slip. No one wants to hobble home sporting a bruised knee or hip. Trail running shoes are great for keeping you upright. You may also want to consider a set of Yaktrax Run straps or other similar traction straps for icy days.
- Warm Up Before You Go Out
Don’t start your workout cold. That makes it a lot harder for your body to stay warm, as it’s starting from behind. Warm up with a few exercises like jumping jacks or push-ups, or put your workout clothes in the dryer for a few minutes before changing into them.
- Start Slow
Especially if you have any type of cardiovascular disease, if you’re out of shape, or if you just haven’t exercised much in the cold weather, you need to start slow. Satisfy yourself with a short 15-minute walk to begin with, and then gradually increase your time and pace. Slowly increasing your intensity can also protect you from muscle and tendon injuries.
- Face the Wind
If the wind is blowing, head straight into it when you start out, so you’ll have it against your back when you return. If you exercise the other way around, you’ll get hot and sweaty on the way out, then the wind will chill you on the way back.
- Stay Hydrated
When it’s cold out, we often don’t feel as thirsty as when it’s hot, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need water. Make sure you drink plenty before you go out, and then drink again when you get back. If you’re going to be working hard or if you’re staying out longer than 30 minutes, consider taking a bottle of room-temperature water with you.
- Watch for Signs of Stress
Stay aware of your body while you’re working out, and watch for signs of stress. Shivering, wetness, exhaustion, dizziness, numbness, and pain, are all symptoms that should signal you it’s time to stop. Get inside and give yourself time to recover.
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Rick Kaselj, MS
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