Exercising Outdoors in the Winter

By Temma Ehenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 21, 2015

If you take precautions, cold weather won’t hurt you. 

As the temperature drops, you may be tempted to give up outdoor activities in favor of a gym. Some people say they can’t make it to the gym or afford the cost, so they end up skipping exercise for the winter. That’s unnecessary and a bad move. You can exercise hard even on a snowy mountaintop, as skiers know. 

But cold-weather exercise is just for the very fit, right? Wrong. There’s no evidence that physically fit people adjust better to the cold. You also don’t have to spend more time to warm up just because it’s cold.

The real reason people are reluctant to exercise outdoors in winter time is their fear of the initial feeling of cold. Remember that you’re not in danger if you begin moving. Your body will quickly adjust. 

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If you have asthma, cold weather might kick it up, but the actual problem is dry air, says Kenneth W. Rundell, PhD, the director of respiratory research and the human physiology laboratory at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. In fact, if your nose gets runny, that means your nose is helping out by moistening to humidify the air you inhale. If you do have asthma, consider taking medication whenever you exercise in dry air — and in the cold. Rundell suggests wearing a face mask, scarf, or balaclava to cover your mouth; your exhaled breath will moisten the air. Ice skaters exposed to chemicals on the ice surface may have more problems with asthma. 

Any real workout will maintain your core temperature. However, people with heart problems or poor circulation in their hands and feet might check with a doctor first.(If you’ve been sedentary or have health problems, you should always check with your doctor before starting any exercise routine.) 

Don’t overdress; you want to be cold at first, not comfortable. Remember that you’ll quickly heat up, and sweat is not your friend. The biggest risk of hypothermia, when your core temperature falls to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, comes when you’re both cold and wet. Water transfers heat from the body 70 times more efficiently than air. Once you sweat, you’re more in danger of getting too cold. 

The right clothing helps a good deal. Start with a synthetic layer to draw sweat away, then a layer of warm fleece or wool, and a top breathable waterproof windbreaker. (You can remove the layers as your body temperature increases.) If you wear cotton, you could end up wet from sweat or falling in snow-drifts and be both cold and wet as soon as you stop moving.

Cover up your head, fingers, and toes, to start, but you can remove a hat temporarily if you’re getting hot. A large percentage of body heat is lost through your scalp. 

Be more careful in rainy or windy weather, since both will make it harder for your body to maintain its core temperature.

Other precautions: Don’t push it by going too far away from your home base. Nightfall comes sooner in the winter, as we all know. Turn back as soon as you or anyone exercising with you shows danger signs. Numbness in an extremity, followed by tingling or burning, could be the beginning of frostbite. Shivering and confusion are bad news; your core temperature may have fallen to 95 degrees or less, a condition called hypothermia. But don’t panic; you’ll be better once you warm up. The true danger is when someone stops shivering. 


December 21, 2015

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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