winter exercise
Credit: onnola, Flickr

The most motivated exercisers may be daunted when facing chilly conditions outside.  There are several ways, however that they can keep safe and warm during an outdoor workout. 

Preparing for an outdoor workout

Before you go outside, tell someone your exercise route and when you expect to return, just in case something happens. Check the weather forecast for the wind, moisture, and temperature. These conditions impact how long you will be safe outside. The wind chill factor, a measurement of cold and wind, can indicate that outdoor conditions are not safe. A strong wind can penetrate the warmest clothes and remove the body's insulating layer of warm air. Exposed skin is especially vulnerable to frostbite.

Safe temperatures and conditions

When the air temperature is above 5 F (-15 C), the risk of developing frostbite is less than five percent but the risk increases when the wind chill drops.  Frostbite can occur on exposed skin in up to 30 minutes if the wind chill is below -18 F (-27 C).  If the wind chill is extreme or the temperature falls below 0 F (-17.8 C), conditions are no longer safe.  Instead, you can do indoor exercises or take a break from our workout schedule.  

Other safety factors

Other factors that might keep you inside are rain or snow unless you have waterproof gear to handle the elements. Getting soaked can lower your core body temperature below acceptable levels (hypothermia) and increase the risk of frostbite.  There are specific signs to look for of these conditions.

Signs of frostbite

Frostbite is a freezing of the skin. It usually occurs on skin exposed to the cold such as the nose, ears, or cheeks, and can also affect the hands and feet. The early signs of frostbite are a stinging sensation, numbness, and a loss of feeling.

If you suspect frostbite:

  • Get out of the cold weather immediately.
  • Slowly warm up the affected area but do not rub since rubbing can damage your skin.
  • Seek emergency medical help if the numbness continues.

Signs of hypothermia

Hypothermia is an abnormal low body temperature. Your body starts to lose heat faster than it can produced. Older adults and those who exercise in rainy, cold weather are at a higher risk for hypothermia.

If you experience these signs, seek immediate medical attention:

  • Fatigue.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Intense shivering.
  • Loss of coordination.

Protecting vulnerable parts of the body

Your head, ears, hands and feet are more vulnerable to frostbite because your body focuses on blood flow in the body's core when the weather is cold. Glove liners made of wicking material can be put under heavier gloves or mittens with wool or fleece linking and be removed when your hands start to sweat.

Exercise shoes should be a half-size to one size larger in order to accommodate both regular and thick thermal socks. Footwear should have traction on ice or snow. Hats or headbands should be worn to protect your ears. A ski mask or scarf can protect your face. Chemical heat packs can also warm hands or feet.

Sunscreen should be applied that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, especially if you are exercising in snow or at high altitudes. Lip balms can offer protection as well. Eyes can be protected from ice glare and snow by googles or dark glasses.

Dress in layers to keep warm

Exercising in cold weather is challenging because working out generates heat. The evaporation of sweat can make your body lose heat and feel chilled. Some clothes are too warm, so another option is to wear layers. These layers can be removed when you begin to sweat and then be put on again as needed. You may need to experiment to get the right combination for you.

Drink lots of fluids

Drink water or sports drinks before, during and after your workout in order to stay hydrated.

See a doctor before working out, if needed

Most people can exercise safety  in cold weather, but the Mayo Clinic recommends that people with health conditions such as heart problems, asthma, or Raynaud’s disease, or are taking medication consult their doctors before exercising.  A doctor can discuss any precautions that need to be taken before working out in the cold.

Concluding thoughts

When the cold weather hits, you may choose to shorten your regular routine, move your workout indoors, or take a break from exercise.  If you do decide to do an outdoor workout, however, wearing layered clothing and protection gear, and monitoring your body can help ensure that you are exercising safely.