Exercising outdoors in winter can offer multiple benefits over indoor exercise, like reducing chances of seasonal blues and increasing vitamin D levels, which can tend to dip in the winter time when we’re not outside much.
However, if you exercise outside, cooler temperatures can greatly affect everything from your muscles to certain medical conditions.
“The body works harder to keep warm, requiring more energy to do so,” said Jennifer Staley, a nurse practitioner at Novant Health UVA Health System Bristow Run Family Medicine in Gainesville, Virginia.
Here are a few things to consider, courtesy of Staley, before you head outside for that long walk or winter run.
Warm up (and cool down)
Muscles tense up in the cold, leaving the body at greater risk for injury due to sprains and strains. Jog in place or do dynamic stretching to make sure muscles are warm before heading outdoors. “I too like to jump to the task at hand, so it’s easy to overlook the importance of the warm up,” Staley said. “However, it’s important to warm up for at least 10 minutes inside. Blood vessels constrict with the cold, so it’s important to get blood flow to the extremities. Stretching prevents injury, and during a cool-down, stretching allows body to recover slowly.”
During winter, we may not feel as dehydrated as summer, but hydration remains key. “In winter, it’s important to hydrate before, during and after exercising,” Staley said. “Often in dry air, we get more dehydrated than we think. Adequate hydration also helps prevent frostbite.”
Staley recommends using SPF 50 sunscreen for outdoor activity in the winter, particularly if exercising in the snow or near water, which reflect sunlight. “It’s important to use SPF 50 minimum in any sun-exposed areas anytime you’re outside in the sun for more than 10 minutes,” she said.
Wearing several layers of clothing helps keep the body warm and dry. “It’s important to wear synthetic material, not cotton, in multiple layers,” Staley said. “The bottom layer should be tighter to skin, moisture wicking. The next layer should be looser — fleece or wool — to help insulate the body and trap heat. Your third layer should be a breathable, waterproof, wind-repellant item.”
Staley advised layering on the legs and feet, too. “Wearing tights under pants to prevent wind chill is important,” she said. “Same with socks — double layer. Use moisture-wicking, not cotton socks. I also recommend a hat. Try wrapping a scarf around the nose and face to help insulate the air as you’re breathing in and prevent wind chill.”
And don’t forget — change into clean dry clothes when you get inside!
Visibility in the winter months can easily be overlooked. “Choose light-colored, reflective clothing when it’s darker outside,” Staley said. “Make sure you have a flashlight or reflective head gear. I, too, like to recommend going in groups if possible at least one buddy for safety, and if you’re hiking or going on a walk, make sure you know the route you’re going to take. Any additional unplanned time out in the elements could make a difference with the cold.”
In winter, make sure to have extra stability in footwear. Extra traction on running shoes, along with an abundance of caution, can help prevent falls. “Be aware of your terrain,” Staley said. “It may look normal, but look out for things like black ice where it might blend in.”
Cold weather can aggravate medical conditions. Those with health conditions – especially asthma, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease –
should discuss their exercise plan with their primary care doctor.
If you have asthma: The cold air can make your body work overtime, especially the heart and lungs, because these organs work together to keep you warm. This can cause blood pressure to rise, making breathing more difficult and leading to an acute exacerbation of asthma symptoms. Caution should be exercised with any strenuous activity, from running to shoveling heavy, wet snow. “Cold air can make the lungs constrict, so definitely have your rescue inhaler with you,” Staley noted.
If you have diabetes: It’s important to dress appropriately to minimize frostbite. Wear sturdy, slip-resistant shoes to protect feet and circulation. “Definitely check the feet afterward for discoloration or cuts,” Staley said. “It’s important to watch, because the feeling may not be intact in the feet, and with cold air, you are much more at risk for frostbite.”
If you have a heart condition: “In the cold, you’re at greater risk for stressing the heart, so make sure your heart is healthy before you go out into the elements,” Staley said. “Discuss any exercise plans with your doctor.”
If you are elderly: Layering clothes and selecting sturdy footwear are advised to prevent falls. “Falls are more likely in winter,” Staley said. “Especially with hidden black ice, it can take us off guard. So paying attention to the forecast and looking carefully before taking stairs is important. Have someone with you.” The elderly also should discuss exercise plans with a health care provider to establish what is safe for them individually.
Head inside if temps get too low
If the wind chill is negative, skip the outdoors and stay inside. Exposed skin has an increased risk of frostbite in less than 30 minutes in extreme cold. Opt for being inside in these conditions. “When the wind chill is above freezing, try keeping the wind to your back if possible, so it’s not in your face and putting you at risk for frostbite,” Staley noted.
Know your limits
It’s important to know your limits when temperatures dip. “Watching for limitations, like trouble breathing, is important to keep you safe,” Staley said. Discuss your exercise plan with your doctor. Be prepared to enter the cold. Watch for skin numbness or tingling, trouble breathing or muscle soreness. Be smart and proactive and stay safe!