Has winter sent your outdoor fitness habit into hibernation? Don’t wait until spring to get back outside.
Outdoor exercise is good for your body and mind, no matter the time of year.
During winter, exercise can help ward off the blues, boost energy, and prevent unwanted weight if you find yourself more sedentary this time of year.
And getting out of the house to work out can be extra mood-lifting. “Getting outside, even in the cold, allows us to reconnect with nature, break away from the digital and concrete world, and boost focus and creativity,” says Eric Ridings, a personal trainer and exercise massage therapist in private practice in Chicago.
Research found, for example, that at the height of pandemic-related lockdowns and social distancing, getting outdoors was a mental health win. A study published in November 2020 in the journal Ecological Applications found that Tokyo residents who spent more time outside in May 2020 reported better mental health, as measured by self-reported depression, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, self-esteem, and loneliness.
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Still not quite ready to brave the harsher weather? Try these cold-weather fitness tips to stay safe, warm, fit, and mentally healthy.
1. Dress ‘Dry,’ Not Just ‘Warm’
The quickest way to lose body heat is to get wet. Because water is an efficient heat conductor — moving heat away from the area of highest concentration (your body) to the lowest (cold air outside) — being wet will quickly leave you chilled and miserable. If you’re cold and wet you may be more inclined to cut your workout short, and you’ll also increase your risk of hypothermia (when your core body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit) or, in freezing conditions, of getting frostbite, Ridings says.
“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 (and other running training books and programs).
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That means, skip active wear made of cotton, which soaks up sweat and rain and holds in moisture. He recommends opting for synthetic fibers instead, such as polyester, nylon, and polypropylene designed to dry quickly. “They wick away moisture about 50 percent faster than cotton,” Galloway says.
2. Layer Up
Don’t stop at sweat-wicking clothes. You also need layers to trap warm air next to your body and keep out the elements (like rain, snow, and wind), says Brian Calkins, an American Council on Exercise (ACE)–certified personal trainer and the president of HealthStyle Fitness in Cincinnati.
Here’s how to layer up for winter workouts: First, put on a thin base layer made of synthetic fabrics (discussed above) to help pull sweat away from your skin. If it’s really cold outside, wear a middle layer, such as polar fleece, for extra warmth. Then, add an outer layer (or shell) to protect you from wind, snow, and rain.
Depending on the weather, your outer shell can be a lightweight nylon windbreaker or vest, or a heavyweight, waterproof jacket. Note that the more water-repellent the shell, the less it will allow moisture from the inside (your sweat) to escape, even if you’re wearing the proper base layer.
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3. Opt for Bright Colors
Black may be chic, but bright clothes are better for outdoor exercise. Not only is it colder in winter, it gets darker earlier and for more of the day, too. Poor visibility from rain, snow, or overcast or dark skies makes it tougher for others to see you. This applies whether you’re sharing the road with motorists or sharing the trail or path with other snow-sports enthusiasts.
Wear brightly colored clothing and gear whenever possible and consider purchasing reflective gear or blinking lights, Ridings says. Apart from helping others see you, wearable flashlights are great because they improve visibility for you, too, to help prevent missteps and falls.
4. Protect Your Extremities
Fingers, ears, nose, and toes are affected most by chilly temperatures because “blood is shunted to the core of the body, leaving less blood (and subsequently less heat) available to hands and feet,” Calkins says.
To keep your extremities from freezing, wear a hat or headband and gloves or mittens. You can always take them off and tuck them in a pocket if you get warm. Thick socks also help. All these add-ons should be wool or synthetic, rather than cotton, to help keep sweat off your skin. Men may also need to consider a good pair of technical briefs, underwear made from synthetic fabrics, or extra layers as needed, Galloway says.
If you find your toes getting particularly chilly, consider the design of your shoes. “Running shoes are designed to let heat escape, but in chilly weather the cold comes right in,” Galloway says. Shoe covers, which you can find at a skiing or hiking retailer, can help lock out the cold. You can also visit a specialty running store to try on shoes that are specially designed to withstand the winter elements.
5. Protect Your Skin
Winter air isn’t just cold, it’s dry. To keep your skin from drying out, drink plenty of water (roughly eight 8-ounce glasses per day) and apply moisturizing cream or lotion often, Ridings says. He recommends applying Vaseline to sensitive areas like the nostrils, tip of the nose, and ears for more protection. To block out biting winds, consider keeping your face covered with a running mask or scarf.
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And here’s something you might not have thought about: the sun. Yes, you can get a sunburn in the winter. Even if it’s cloudy, UV rays can reach and damage the skin. What’s more, it’s important to realize that 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.
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If you’re skiing or snowboarding in the mountains, your risk of sunburn is even higher. For every 1,000 feet of elevation, UV exposure increases 4 to 5 percent, the Skin Cancer Foundation says.
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 and apply SPF lip balm before, during, and after your workout. And don’t forget to protect your eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses, Ridings says.
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6. Check Your Traction
Winter workouts can get slippery fast if any rain, snow, or ice is involved. If any of these elements are present, “Stay on plowed or salted surfaces,” Ridings says. Back roads and trails may not be as well maintained, and may have hidden obstacles that could lead to ankle or other injuries.
If you do plan to run or walk on snowy, icy surfaces, attaching snow or ice spikes to your running shoes will help you maintain traction to reduce the risk of falls, he says. But it’s important to stay off pavement if you’re wearing spikes. They’re designed to pierce snow or ice, so on paved surfaces they can impede balance instead.
7. Do a Warm-Up First
“Colder weather requires a longer warm-up,” Galloway says. Dynamic warm-ups increase blood flow and temperature in the muscles which, in turn, helps decrease the risk of injuries.
“When exercising in colder temperatures, you’re at an increased risk for sprains and strains,” says Debi Pillarella, an Indiana-based ACE-certified personal trainer and ACE spokesperson. Think of it as stretching a cold rubber band. It can snap easily, right? Warm it up, though, and it becomes more pliable and less likely to fray.
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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. If you’re a runner, for instance, a dynamic warm-up might include bodyweight lunges and squats, arm swings, and core activation work, Calkins says.
And be sure not to confuse warming up with static, bend-and-hold stretching. Those stretches are best saved for the end of your workout.
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8. Breathe Right
If you’ve gotten your heart rate up when the temperatures drop to the freezing point, you know it feels different from working out in warmer temperatures. It can actually hurt to breathe because of how your body reacts to cold, dry air.
“In cold weather, airway passages tend to narrow, which makes inhalation more difficult,” says Pillarella.
Breathing in through your nose can help warm and humidify air, but that’s not always feasible when you’re exerting yourself and breathing heavily. Wrapping a bandanna or scarf around your mouth (or another thin fabric layer) can help trap water vapor in when you breathe out to keep air more moist as you continue to breathe.
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9. Remove Layers as You Heat Up
“The biggest mistake in dressing for cold weather exercise is putting on too many layers and not peeling them off in time,” Galloway says. After all, exercise will considerably warm you, and you don’t want to get ridiculously sweaty when you’re in subfreezing temps — leaving you at risk of everything from dehydration to frostbite.
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As soon as you start to feel like your body temp is at about baseline, that’s the time to start discarding layers. “Remove it and tie it around your waist. If you get cold later, you can put it back on.”
Also, keep in mind that your exercise intensity will affect how many layers you need — and how soon you need to start removing them. Runners tend to need fewer layers than walkers because they move faster and produce more body heat.
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10. Drink Up
Some people don’t feel as thirsty during cold-weather workouts as they do when exercising in warmer weather, says Galloway, but dehydration in colder climates carries a number of risks, including headaches and a drop in energy. You’re still losing fluids through sweat and breathing in lower temperatures, and you need to replace those fluids by drinking water.
Sip water during your workout and switch to a sports drink, such as Gatorade, if you’re planning to exercise for 90 minutes or longer (and if you’re not fueling up with energy gels or chews), Galloway recommends. But it’s important not to overdo it. No matter how much water you gulp down, your body can absorb only three to four ounces at a time, Galloway says. Trying to drink too much can lead to a dangerous (and in severe cases, potentially fatal) condition called hyponatremia, which is when your body is overhydrated and pushes fluids out of the blood and into tissue cells.
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Not sure how well hydrated you are? Pillarella says to pay attention to your urine. “Dark, low volume, and infrequent urination indicate that you need more fluid,” she says. Conversely, clear urine with high volume and frequency may mean you’re hydrating too much.
11. Head Into the Wind — to Start
The faster you’re moving, the higher the windchill factor — and your risk of hypothermia, Galloway says.
To help reduce the impact and keep you core body temp up, make sure that (if you’re performing an activity in a loop, like running, cycling, or skiing) you head into the wind at the beginning. That ensures that, on your way back, when you’re at your sweatiest and have the greatest risk of losing body heat, you aren’t fighting the windchill as well, he says. Keep the wind at your back and wear a wind-breaking layer (see tip No. 2). Let it push you forward.
12. Cool Down and Then Change Out of Damp Gear
Once you stop moving after a cold-weather workout, you’ll get chilled fast. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to cool down. Whatever the weather, a cooldown is important after sustained exercise, Calkins says. “It helps your body eliminate exercise by-products and reduce potential muscle soreness.”
It also helps your heart take care of itself, Galloway adds. “Going straight from strenuous exercise to standing around creates stress for your heart.” He advises gradually tapering your exercise intensity during the final 5 to 10 minutes. Then, once breathing and heart rate normalize, repeat your warm-up and do some static stretching.
Then it’s time to get out of your damp workout clothes, which can suck away warmth. A warm shower and dry, clean clothes will keep that chill away.
13. Avoid Certain Conditions
Despite the benefits of fresh air, there are some weather conditions that increase the risk of injuries and that should be avoided altogether. Ice increases your risk of slipping, which can cause injuries.
“The dangers of extreme cold are frostbite and tissue damage due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures without protection,” says Galloway.
Other health risks include added strain on the heart as lower temperatures cause blood vessels to narrow, as well as hypothermia, whereby the body expels heat quicker than it’s able to produce it, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
If you have a chronic health condition that may be aggravated or affected by cold weather, such as asthma, heart problems, or Raynaud’s disease, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about what types of cold-weather exercise is healthy for you and in what conditions. Mayo Clinic recommends that everyone consider taking the workout indoors if temperatures dip below 0 degrees F or the windchill is severe.
Additional reporting by Leoni Jesner.
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