Cold-Weather Exercising

How to stay active out­doors dur­ing the win­ter months

Win­ter brings short­er days, cold­er weath­er and slip­pery side­walks, but it does­n’t have to bring an end to your out­door activ­i­ty. Believe it or not, you can keep your work­out rou­tine going on cold and snowy days as long as you do it safe­ly and pre­pare appro­pri­ate­ly before you head out­doors. Here, Dr. Bri­an Ward, orthopaedic sur­geon, and Michael Czu­ba, sports phys­i­cal ther­a­pist and ath­let­ic train­er, pro­vide tips on how to pre­pare for out­door exer­cis­ing and activ­i­ty to avoid injury and to max­i­mize your workout. 

How cold is too cold?

Your body can with­stand tem­per­a­tures cold­er than some might think. The Amer­i­can Col­lege of Sports Med­i­cine con­tends that exer­cise can be per­formed safe­ly in most cold-weath­er envi­ron­ments with­out incur­ring cold-weath­er injuries” to wind chill tem­per­a­tures of ‑18 degrees Fahren­heit. 1 It’s impor­tant to iden­ti­fy cold-weath­er haz­ards and mon­i­tor your body to iden­ti­fy signs of weath­er-relat­ed con­di­tions like hypother­mia and frost­bite. And, even though it might be safe, you may choose to exer­cise indoors on those days where the wind chill dips into the negatives.

It may also be help­ful to con­sid­er mov­ing your work­out to lat­er in the day when your body tem­per­a­ture and out­door tem­per­a­ture tend to be warmer. Also, if you suf­fer from asth­ma, heart dis­ease or any oth­er med­ical con­di­tion, be sure to clear any exer­cise pro­gram with your physi­cian first.

Best Win­ter Exercises

Win­ter weath­er does­n’t mean you have to stop your favorite exer­cise rou­tine. Even with snowy or cold weath­er you can still walk, run, hike and even bike ride to keep in shape, though you may need to do a lit­tle research to find a route or path that works with the win­ter conditions.

If you’re look­ing to change up your work­out rou­tine, win­ter is a great time to do so. There are many weath­er-relat­ed exer­cise activ­i­ties you can’t do at any oth­er time of year, so make the most of it by tak­ing advan­tage of what the sea­son has to offer:

  • Ice-skat­ing
  • Cross-coun­try skiing
  • Snow­shoe­ing
  • Shov­el­ing
  • Even a snow­ball fight with fam­i­ly or friends increas­es heartrate and burns calories

Gear­ing up

No mat­ter the activ­i­ty, be sure to gear up appro­pri­ate­ly to avoid health risks like frost­bite, hypother­mia and oth­er bod­i­ly injuries. Dress for out­door exer­cise suc­cess by lay­er­ing up and remem­ber that it’s nor­mal to feel cold at first since your body warms up with motion.

  • Inner lay­er of light­weight poly­ester to wick mois­ture away from skin
  • Mid­dle lay­er of fleece or wool to pro­vide warmth
  • Out­er lay­er that is breath­able but can repel wind and/​or rain — make it reflec­tive to be seen in the dark­er, short­er days
  • Stay away from cot­ton — it holds mois­ture but not body heat

Don’t for­get your head, hands and feet! Since blood flow stays con­cen­trat­ed in your core, your extrem­i­ties can be more sus­cep­ti­ble to the cold. Hats, gloves, warm socks and weath­er­proof footwear with good trac­tion are rec­om­mend­ed for out­door cold-weath­er activ­i­ty. Also, remem­ber sun­screen, lip balm and sun­glass­es. It’s just as impor­tant to pro­tect your skin and eyes from UV rays in win­ter as it is in the summer.

Avoid­ing Injury

Though gen­er­al­ly safe, there are some increased risks of injury that come with exer­cis­ing in the cold. With slip­pery or icy con­di­tions, falls can be more like­ly, so take extra cau­tion out­side. Cold can also increase your like­li­hood of strains or tears due to low­er elas­tic­i­ty in your mus­cles and con­nec­tive tis­sue dur­ing the win­ter months. As a result, it’s crit­i­cal to take a lit­tle more time for your body to ful­ly warm up and cool down. 

Warm-up

  • Gen­er­al­ly it’s rec­om­mend­ed you take 20 min­utes to warm up, start­ing slow­ly, before head­ing into the cold.
  • A thor­ough warm-up pre­pares your body, rais­es your heart rate and ele­vates the tem­per­a­ture of your mus­cles, mak­ing them more pli­able for bet­ter per­for­mance with reduced risk of injury.
  • Incor­po­rate aer­o­bic and flex­i­bil­i­ty ele­ments into your warm-up, mak­ing sure you do the aer­o­bic por­tion first so your mus­cles are warm before they’re stretched.

Cooldown

  • Don’t skip the cooldown after exer­cis­ing; it pro­motes mus­cle recovery.
  • Start your cooldown by grad­u­al­ly decreas­ing your inten­si­ty lev­el until breath­ing and heart rate becomes nor­mal. For exam­ple, if you’re run­ning, start your cooldown by slow­ing to a jog then walk.
  • Fin­ish with stretch­ing to reduce mus­cle ten­sion and pre­vent injury, hit­ting mus­cle groups in your legs, arms, tor­so and back.

It also helps to remove sweaty, wet cloth­ing and footwear to pre­vent low­ered body tem­per­a­ture after exer­cise and a blan­ket can help warm your body up quick­ly. Be sure to keep hydrat­ed dur­ing and after your work­out, too. Even if you don’t feel as hot or thirsty in the cold, you do lose flu­ids rapid­ly, so be sure to replen­ish them regularly.

Out­door activ­i­ty in cold weath­er can be safe and fun with the prop­er pre­cau­tions and prepa­ra­tions. Be sure to mon­i­tor the chang­ing weath­er con­di­tions, dress appro­pri­ate­ly, incor­po­rate thor­ough warm-up and cooldown and hydrate reg­u­lar­ly to stay safe and injury free.

If you have addi­tion­al ques­tions about cold-weath­er exer­cise or would like to see an orthopaedist or phys­i­cal ther­a­pist, click here to sched­ule an appoint­ment online.

1Amer­i­can Col­lege of Sports Med­i­cine posi­tion stand: pre­ven­tion of cold injuries dur­ing exer­cise. Castel­lani JW, Young AJ, Ducharme MB. Med­i­cine and sci­ence in sports and exer­cise, 2007, Jan.;38(11):0195 – 9131.

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  • My practice is dedicated to providing the highest quality care to all patients with respect, compassion and attention to detail. As one of the former team physicians for the New York Giants Football team and Iona College, I am passionate about sports medicine and the prevention and management of sports-related injuries. My educational experience at the Hospital for Special Surgery allows me to use evidence-based medicine to treat injuries with state-of-the-art techniques. My goal is to educate and involve each patient so together we can make the best decision for each individual, focusing on patient-centered care.

  • As a physical therapist, it is my privilege and responsibility to treat the patient, not just the injury. I have a passion for guiding patients through the continuum of care from initial injury, through focused rehabilitation and back to chosen interest or sport participation. An important component of this is comprehensive education on specific injury, anatomy, physiology and prognosis. Additionally, functional exercise and manual techniques are also tools I have incorporated to meet that directive. Finally, It is also imperative that I constantly seek the most current and relevant evidence in order to provide the most effective, thorough and efficient care possible.