With shorter days and cooler temperatures, exercising outdoors in winter requires more planning. But if you can get over that initial cold blast, there’s a lot to enjoy.
“I think exercising outside, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is fantastic,” he says Tamanna Singh, a sports cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic who trains outdoors year-round. “You breathe fresh air and are with nature.”
Exercising in cold weather improves your heart rate, boosts your immune system, boosts your mood, and builds endurance in dealing with the cold.
“The benefits of exercising outside cannot be overstated,” he adds Patrick Doherty, neurosurgeon and assistant clinical professor of neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine. It also burns more calories than in milder weather, which is especially important during this relatively sedentary time of year, he says.
Read more: Is 30 minutes of exercise a day enough?
But be careful! When you train in cold temperatures, “you don’t feel like you’re training as hard; you don’t sweat as much,” he says Alexis Koslick, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “You may not realize you’re getting dehydrated. You may not realize that you have the same amount of calories and expended when it is not so hot outside.
Whether you’re trying to stay fit or get in shape, doctors say you can do it safely—and enjoyably—as long as you prepare for the weather and listen to your body. Below, these doctors offer tips for safe winter exercise.
1. Dress for the “feel” of the weather.
(Credit: Red Herring/Shutterstock)
When dressing for winter exercise, Dougherty offers the three Ws: wicking, warmth and waterproofing.
Start with a moisture-wicking polyester layer that will absorb sweat and keep it away from your skin. Follow this with a layer for warmth, such as wool. Next, choose an outer layer that is waterproof enough to repel rain, snow and wind.
Since the wind chill can make 30 degrees Fahrenheit feel like 20 or 15 degrees, check out what meteorologists have to say about the “feel” of temperatures—taking that biting wind into account, Koslick says. And keep your skin covered to prevent frostbite if you do really cold, she adds.
No matter what, you lose the most heat through your head, arms and legs, so keep them covered at the start of your workout. Once you’ve warmed up and feel hot, however, feel free to safely remove layers as long as you’re mindful of the temperatures, says Koslik.
2. Wear shoes with traction.
Prevent slips and falls by wearing the right shoes for conditions, says Doherty. Snowshoes are best for walking short distances, but hiking boots are better for trekking in snow.
Most accidents happen when people wear the wrong shoes for the conditions, Dougherty continues: “I can’t tell you [number of] people slipping and falling wearing high heels walking to the car or slippers to get the mail.
Make sure your running shoes or hiking boots have good traction and consider adding cleats or buying specialized winter running shoes with extra traction. And “make sure you practice somewhere you can still get good traction,” says Koslick, whether it’s a plowed and sanded surface or a frozen grassy field.
3. Hydrate and eat.
(Credit: Alexey Matrenin/Shutterstock)
Drink about 8 ounces of water before a workout—and drink more water 15 minutes later, says Doherty. However you don’t feel so thirsty in the cold, he explains, if “you wear multiple layers, you can dehydrate just as easily in the winter as you can in the summer.”
And from Coslick, an extra note for caffeine addicts: drinking coffee is a diuretic, so don’t replace it with water. Also, be sure to eat something that contains protein before your workout. Your body needs fuel!
4. Stretch before and after.
Whether you’re out shoveling the trail or for a day of skiing, it’s important to warm up and stretch before and after your workout.
But the stretch is even More ▼ essential when it’s cold, doctors say; this is because the cold constricts blood vessels to maintain core body temperature. Warming up gets that blood flowing.
Coslick recommends starting with dynamic stretching, such as arm swings and circles, leg swings, and jumping jacks. If your muscles are still cold, you’re at greater risk of injury throughout the year, she says.
Static stretching of your hamstrings, quads, back and torso before and then exercise is also important, adds Dougherty. “Warming is much more important when it’s cold. These muscles are very tight; the cold tightens the muscles and people often get muscle cramps after exercise,” he says.
5. Listen to your body.
You may not realize it, but your body works harder in the cold. Take breaks and listen to your body if you feel tired, dizzy, achy, light-headed, or if your heart is racing, Dougherty says.
When you hear yourself saying, “This is my last ski run of the day,” or “I’m just going to finish the last few feet of this driveway,” Dougherty says to think again. Why? That’s when people tend to hurt themselves, he says, when they overdo it.
“If you’re not physically fit, stop exercising if you feel dizzy or nauseous,” says Singh. If you’re trying to fulfill that New Year’s resolution to exercise, start small and build up your fitness gradually. Even if you’ve been exercising regularly indoors, Singh says, you may not be able to exercise at the same intensity outdoors in the cold at first.
And be aware of these telltale signs of chest pain and shortness of breath, especially if you’re a man at least 50 or a woman at least 60, she continues. Although no one is immune to heart problems, people who have heart attacks while shoveling snow tend to lead more sedentary lives.
If this sounds like you, do just a little at a time, take breaks, and pay attention to the warning signs.
6. When you work out in the dark…
If you are exercising in daylight with exposed skin, don’t forget sunscreen. Snow reflects sunlight just like sand. (And maybe the scent of the sunscreen will remind you of summer.)
Of course, daylight can be quite hard to come by during the winter months. So once the sun goes down, increase your safety by wearing headlamps and reflective clothing, Koslik says—making sure it’s reflective on both the front and back.
“The biggest concern is light,” she says. “Do you see the ground? Can cars and other people see you?” Note that it’s also harder to see black ice in the dark, so avoid any spots that look wet.