Many people wonder whether it is safe to exercise outdoors during cold weather, especially below freezing.
As a general rule, it is; but you do want to make sure you take certain precautions, and pay attention to signs and symptoms of specific cold-weather dangers.
Additionally, there are likely better and safer options than exercising outdoors during very cold temperatures.
Three primary dangers of cold weather exercise are:
- Frost bite
- Increased heart attack risk
Better Options than Exercising in Cold Weather
There are several concerns about exercising in cold weather and the colder the weather the more serious the concern.
It is unclear the damage you can do if you are rapidly ventilating large amounts of frigid air.
Your lungs were not designed to breathe in large amounts of very cold air, which may also have very little moisture, and it’s unclear whether you might cause some damage this way.
Fortunately most areas do not have many weeks or months of extremely cold temperatures, so this is something that would have to be moderated, typically, for only a few days or weeks until the weather improves.
I used to be an avid runner and would run year round in below zero temperatures. However the older I got the wiser I became and I gradually increased the minimum temperature I would run in. This was until I decided that after 42 years of running I had enough and switched to Peak Fitness exercises and strength training instead of running.
Another potential concern and danger is slipping and falling on an icy patch. Yes I did this too and actually broke one of my wrist bones (carpal navicular), which took about six months to heal, so I was in a highly inconvenient and uncomfortable cast for about a half a year. This wasn’t a serious problem but older individuals can fall on the ice and break their hip, and a significant number of people actually die after breaking their hip as a result of a lung clot (pulmonary embolus) after long periods of immobilization.
So it would seem highly prudent to go indoors under extreme temperature conditions and do some high intensity training on a recumbent bike or elliptical, or do some strength training Peak Fitness exercises until the temperatures warm up. If you feel you need to or would like to exercise outdoors then I have listed some additional concerns and recommendations below.
Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia
Once the thermometer dips down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.6 degrees Celsius) or so, you’ll want to use extreme caution and make sure to protect your skin from exposure, as such subfreezing temperatures dramatically increase your chances of developing frost bite.
Your cheeks, nose and ears are the most vulnerable, but your hands and feet are also easily affected. Early warning signs of frostbite include a stinging sensation, numbness or loss of feeling. If you suspect you may be developing frostbite, you’ll want to get out of the cold immediately, and slowly warm the affected area. You should NOT rub the affected area however, as this may cause skin damage.
If the numbness persists, you need to seek emergency care.
Hypothermia is when your core body temperature slips below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Most of your body heat is lost through your skin, and as much as 50 percent of it can be lost via your head—which is why you should always cover your head during cold weather. As the air temperature gets colder, your body compensates by shivering. The increased muscle activity generates body heat. But if the heat loss is greater than your body’s ability to generate it, then your core temperature starts to fall.
As it falls, your body compensates by shunting blood away from your skin and towards your vital organs such as your heart, lungs and brain. Of your organs, your brain and heart are the most cold-sensitive, and as your core temperature drops, the electrical activity in these organs slows. Eventually, if your temperature drops too low, heart- and brain activity ceases altogether, and you die.
If you suspect hypothermia, you need to seek immediate emergency help. Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination
Who Should Avoid Cold Weather Exercise?
Besides drawing blood away from the surface of your skin, in toward your vital organs, as described above, when you are in low temperatures outdoors, your cardiovascular system also tends to respond by increasing blood pressure and heart rate, which can promote a heart attack. Additionally, when you’re cold, your airway tends to narrow, making breathing more difficult.
Therefore, exercising in cold weather may not be ideal if you have any of the following health conditions. If you do, I’d recommend conferring with your doctor prior to engaging in cold weather exercise:
- Exercise-induced bronchitis
- Heart condition
- Raynaud’s disease (a condition that limits blood circulation to certain areas of your body, causing them to numb in response to cold temperatures or stress. This may not only make it difficult to determine whether or not you’re getting hypothermic, the reduced blood flow may also increase your risk)
How to Stay Warm and Safe During Cold Weather Exercise
If, for whatever reason, you determine that you want to exercise outdoors then it would be prudent to exercise some caution. Dressing appropriately and paying attention to the following safeguards can help keep you safe and warm when exercising outdoors this winter:
- Dress in three or more layers:
- Use a lightweight synthetic material to wick moisture away from your skin. Avoid heavy cotton materials as these absorb sweat, trapping wetness close to your body, which can increase your risk of hypothermia
- Add another layer or two of wool or fleece for insulating warmth
- Top it off with a lightweight, water-repellant and wind-resistant material
- Always wear a hat, as you lose about 50 percent of your body heat from your uncovered head
- Wear gloves to protect your fingers from frostbite. Layering thin gloves with heavier mittens is a good idea so you can remove a layer if needed without exposing your bare skin to the frigid air
- Cover your face with mask or scarf when the temperature is below freezing to avoid frostbite. This can also help warm the air a bit before entering your lungs
- Wear sturdy footwear with good traction to prevent slips and falls on snow or ice
- Check the temperature and the forecast. Health risks increase when the combined temperature and wind chill falls below -20°F
- Wear light and/or reflective clothing as it gets darker sooner during the winter months. You want to make sure drivers can see you
- Drink plenty of fluids. Staying properly hydrated is just as important during cold weather as during hot weather. Drink before, during and after your workout, even if you don’t feel very thirsty, as dehydration may be more difficult to notice during cold weather exertion
- Tell someone what route you’re taking, and when to expect your return, just in case something goes wrong. If you slip and fall in the winter, hypothermia can get the better of you if no one knows to go looking for you
While staying warm is important, a common mistake people make is actually dressing too warmly when exercising in cold weather. Remember that exercise will generate body heat and sweating, even though it’s cold outside. And once your sweat starts to accumulate in your clothes, it can have a significantly chilling impact. If it’s really cold outside, it may even end up freezing close to your skin, which can lower your body temperature and increase your risk of hypothermia. Staying DRY is equally important as being warm—hence the importance of putting on a wicking layer closest to your skin, and dressing in layers so you can remove a layer or two if you’re sweating profusely. Just remember to put those layers back on once you begin to cool down.
Keep in mind that wind chill can make exercising risky even if you dress warmly. As a general suggestion, I’d recommend taking a break from outdoor activities if the temperature dips well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8 C), or if the wind chill factor is high, and opt to exercise indoors instead.
How to Find Time for Exercise
Aside from the question of safety, many people probably struggle more with finding the time to exercise… More than half of U.S. adults don’t get the recommended amount of exercise, and 24 percent are completely sedentary. But exercise doesn’t have to take up a lot of time, and it can be built into your everyday routine.
BBC Health suggests a number of ways in which you can be more active at work and at home, such as:
- Talk to your employers about promoting health at work
- Walk or bicycle to and from work
- Walk your child to school, but recognize you will need far more intense exercise than walking to achieve any major benefits
- Be active in and around your home — use the stairs to exercise, work in the garden, or install some gym equipment
These are all excellent recommendations. However, I recommend not settling there, but continuing and implementing a well-rounded fitness program to really optimize your health benefits. Of course, if you’re just getting back into exercising, you’ll need to work your way up slowly. Trying to do too much at once can lead to burnout and make you less likely to continue your program—which is why starting with the suggestions above can be such a great way to ease into a more regimented fitness program.
As your body grows more conditioned, you can then increase to a higher intensity workout.
To achieve the full range of benefits of exercise you need to exercise more intensely so you will want to tailor your fitness plan to include a variety of more challenging techniques. You should be getting not only strength training and aerobics, but also core-building activities, stretching and, most importantly, anaerobic or high-intensity interval training-type exercises. Please don’t make the mistake I did for decades by wasting your time logging in steady, hour-long cardio sessions on the treadmill as your primary form of exercise. It’s actually one of the least effective forms of exercise there is…
High intensity interval training, on the other hand, whether you do it on a treadmill or a recumbent bike, or using weights, has been shown to be one of the most effective forms of exercise—even providing benefits you can’t get any other way! For more information, please follow the hyperlinks provided.
Make Exercise a Non-Negotiable Part of Your Schedule…
Whenever you struggle with your time management, remember that exercise is every bit as important as eating, sleeping and breathing… It should not be viewed as an ancillary part of your day, but rather a necessity. Viewing exercise as a non-negotiable part of your day is really the trick to getting it done. Ideally, schedule it into your appointment book the way you would an important meeting or social event. Set the time for it and then make no excuses about keeping it.
Ideally it is something that you would schedule an appointment for even if you are doing it alone. You would certainly need to do this if you had a personal trainer, which is one of the reasons trainers are good as they help you keep your exercise commitment. But it is just as easy to make an appointment for yourself.
What you’ll find is that the more you exercise, the better you’ll feel and the more addictive it will become. Soon you won’t want to miss your exercise sessions because you’ll notice a dip in your energy or stamina when you back off for too long.
You just have to place a HIGH PRIORITY on it and schedule your day around the exercise, not the other way around… Also, please don’t use your age as an excuse to avoid exercise, because no matter what your age, exercise can provide enormous benefits for your health. As a matter of fact, if you happen to be over 40, it’s especially important to either start or step up your exercise program. This is the time of life when your physical strength, stamina, balance and flexibility start to decline, and exercise can help to counteract that dramatically.
So get up; get outside; and get going! Regardless of the season, you can exercise outside—or take it indoors if you prefer. The option is yours—the possibilities are just about endless!
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