If you like to exercise outside, it’s tempting to just soldier through a cold weather snap without changing your routine too much. However, cold winter temperatures can greatly affect everything from your muscles to certain medical conditions. And you could really be at risk if you are just starting a new exercise regimen.
Before you start a new exercise routine, it’s important you consult with your primary care provider to make sure that your plan is safe for you. “People who are older, are overweight or are taking medications for medical conditions may be putting themselves at risk,” said Dr. Eric Warren, a sports medicine and family medicine provider at Novant Health Waxhaw Family and Sports Medicine. “In addition, cold weather is a shock to the system.”
For instance, “Extreme cold weather can cause a person’s airways to tighten, making breathing more difficult,” said Jennifer Blevins, a nurse practitioner with Novant Health Primary Care Salisbury. “The body works harder to keep warm, requiring more energy to do so. The muscles require more energy as well to regulate your body’s core temperature.”
Here are a few things to consider before you head outside for that long walk or winter training run.
Check the forecast
Before heading out, “Check to see how the wind chill is affecting the real feel of temperature because that can put you at risk for hypothermia and frostbite,” Warren said. “A wet, rainy cold day can also make you feel colder than a dry but cold day.”
Plan to run at midday when the day has warmed up some, Warren advised and don’t forget to use sunscreen on exposed parts of your body.
Wear lightweight, synthetic material closest to your body. “This allows you to stay dry better when you are working out,” Blevins said. “Keeping moisture away from your skin helps you to stay dry and warm at the same time.”
And, Warren added, “Wear fabric that wicks sweat away from the body. Cold sweat can make you hypothermic even quicker.”
Consider fleece or wool as a second layer to help insulate if you will be outside for some time. Your third outer layer should be a breathable, waterproof, wind-repellant item.
“Most of the body’s heat is lost through the skin, and the most heat is lost through the head, so wearing a hat is a good idea. Be sure to cover your ears, which are susceptible to frostbite in extreme cold,” Blevins said. In addition, wear gloves to protect your fingertips, and ensure your feet stay warm and dry with proper footwear and wicking socks, not cotton, and are specially designed to keep feet dry.
Warren said you might want to consider getting shoes that are a half size bigger than what you normally wear in order to accommodate thicker socks.
Visibility in the winter months can easily be overlooked. “Dress in light-colored, reflective clothing,” she said. “It gets darker earlier, and you want to ensure you are seen while you are outside exercising.”
This may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure your footwear is up to the task. “You need to plan on wearing good shoes that are sturdy and slip resistant,” Blevins said. This also may mean adding traction to everyday running shoes if you plan on running on areas at risk for ice.
“Not warming up before a chilly run or exercising in the cold can actually be a shock to your body, causing your muscles to feel tighter,” Blevins said. “This can lead to an increased incidence of injury due to sprains and strains.” Be sure to stretch indoors and perform some dynamic stretching movements to raise your heart rate to warm your muscles before you head outside.
Warming up your muscles makes them more pliable which lessens the risk of muscle injury, Warren said. Prior to running, he recommends some low-level cardio activity such as jogging in place or jumping jacks.
“Medical conditions that can be aggravated by cold weather include asthma, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and COPD, just to name a few,” Blevins said. “People with health issues need to discuss their exercise plan with their primary care doctor.”
If you have asthma: It’s important to always carry your rescue inhaler with you, Blevins said. “The cold air can make your body work overtime, especially the heart and lungs, because these organs work together to keep you warm,” she said. “This can cause blood pressure to rise as the blood vessels constrict, 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.
People with asthma are more prone to broncho constriction, Warren said.
If you have diabetes: “It’s important to dress appropriately to minimize frostbite and wear sturdy, slip-resistant shoes to protect feet and circulation,” Blevins said.
If you have a heart condition: “Discuss your exercise plans with your primary care doctor to customize a plan that’s safe for you,” she said.
If you are elderly: “Take precaution to stay warm but not to overdress. Layering is key,” Blevins said. “Wearing good, sturdy shoes that are slip resistant can help reduce falls. The elderly also need to exercise in a familiar area with good lighting to reduce the risk of falls.” She added that 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
Both providers agree that when it is really cold, you should take your exercise indoors particularly if the wind chill is affecting the temperature.
Warren noted that a temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind speed of 15 miles per hour creates a wind chill temperature that feels like -19 degrees Fahrenheit. “People can get frostbite within half an hour under these conditions.”
“If the wind chill is negative, skip the outdoors and stay inside,” Blevins said. “Exposed skin has an increased risk of frostbite in less than 30 minutes in extreme cold. Definitely opt for an alternative to being outside in these conditions.”