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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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