One of the best ways to prevent the winter doldrums is to exercise, and the benefits are optimized if you can do it outdoors. We need sunshine to remind our brains that life isn’t always dreary and cold, and we need activity to keep our bodies in working order. So, when the cold starts to rob us of our motivation, it is twice as important to dress well and brave the elements. 

Person running outdoors in the city in cold weatherThe key to actually enjoying outdoor activities during the winter months is preparation: your comfort will be totally reliant upon knowing a few tricks of the trade, like how to stay warm without sweating, and which gear is best for protecting our extremities. Despite our words of warning that make winter workouts sound like an arctic expedition, exercising outdoors in the cold can be extremely invigorating and rewarding.

Check the Forecast

There’s cold, and then there’s too cold, and knowing the difference is important. Temperature, wind, and moisture all work together to rob your body of its ability to maintain heat. When the weather forecast calls for high wind chill probability — or the combination of wind and cold — it may be unsafe to exercise outside regardless of warm clothing. The risk of frostbite to any exposed skin increases as the wind chill falls. If the temperature dips below zero, or the forecast calls for extreme wind chill, you’re probably better off exercising indoors.

If there is rain or snow in the forecast, you need to be extra careful about gearing up properly. There’s nothing else like getting out in the fresh snow for some cross-country skiing or a quiet winter walk, but getting wet makes you more vulnerable to the cold, so be sure to wear waterproof outerwear.

Dressing for Exercise is Different

Woman wearing exercise clothing stretches her quadYou probably already know the basics for how to dress warmly in the winter, but here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re planning on exercising in the cold. Firstly, don’t dress too warmly! Exercise generates a considerable amount of heat, which will raise your core body temperature. Your body, in turn, will start to sweat, which is the body’s built-in cooling mechanism. Now, despite all your warm clothing, you feel chilled because your body is trying to cool itself when its surrounding environment is already cold. 

The key is dressing in layers. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • First, put on a thin layer of synthetic material, like this one, which draws sweat away from your body. (This is one instance in which you’re better off avoiding cotton.)
  • Add a layer of fleece or wool for insulation. Some people like to have two thin layers so they can adjust how warm they are as they go. This fleece is uber popular with outdoor exercise enthusiasts.
  • Make sure your outer layer is waterproof but breathable. You want to have protection from wind or precipitation, but you don’t want to be creating your own personal sauna, either.

Wear Gloves, Hats, and Extra Socks

Woman tying her shoe, exercising outdoors in the showThe idea is to protect yourself from the elements without making your body work too hard to regulate its core temperature. Which brings us to the next tip: Protect your extremities. When it’s cold, blood flow is concentrated in your body’s core, which leaves your head, ears, hands, and feet vulnerable to frostbite. Again, you want to use layers to protect these delicate body parts from getting too cold or too wet (from either sweat or rain.) 

  • It’s a good idea to wear a thin pair of glove liners made of a wicking material under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens that are lined with wool or fleece. This way you can remove the outer pair when your hands get sweaty. 
  • Many people like to buy winter exercise shoes a half size larger than usual so that they can wear thick thermal socks or even double up. 
  • A hat is a must when it’s chilly outside. Again, it’s helpful to have a lightweight hat under a warmer one (especially because wool and fleece can feel super itchy on a sweaty forehead). At the very least, make sure you have a headband or ear muffs to protect your ears, particularly if it is windy.
  • When it’s really cold out, or there is wind chill, it may be wise to wear a scarf or ski mask to cover your face. 

Safety Never Takes a Vacation

In addition to staying warm, you need to use special precautions when exercising in winter time. Safety gear is pretty specific to the type of exercise you prefer, but here are some general guidelines everyone can follow:

  • With limited daylight hours, you might be exercising in low light, snow, or even in darkness. Make sure you are wearing reflective clothing, or even a small headlight or vest that lights up for extra visibility.
  • Make sure whatever footwear you choose has enough traction to prevent falls in icy or snowy conditions.
  • woman wearing snow goggles and winter coatProtecting your eyes and skin from the sun is still important! Wear sunblock, use a lip balm, and protect your eyes with dark glasses or goggles.
  • Don’t forget to hydrate. You might not feel as thirsty as you would doing the same activity in the heat of the summer, but your body still needs plenty of fluids to stay hydrated in cold weather.
  • Take it easier than usual: your body is already working extra hard just to maintain a normal temperature, so it might be wise to shorten your normal workout or just go at a slower pace. 

Know When to Call It Quits

There are definitely situations when it’s better to play it safe and stay indoors. Frostbite and hypothermia are real threats to our wellbeing, and the negative cost would far outweigh any benefits from exercise. Even the most experienced winter athletes can suffer these ailments due to unexpected weather, so it’s helpful to know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia and how to treat them.

Frostbite: Frostbite is most common on exposed, delicate skin, like on your cheeks, nose, and ears. Early warning signs include numbness, loss of feeling, or a stinging sensation. If you even suspect frostbite, quickly get out of the cold and slowly warm the area. Avoid rubbing the area, as it could damage weakened skin. If normal sensation doesn’t return, it’s a good idea to seek medical evaluation and treatment.

Feet wearing cozy socks in front of a fireHypothermia: Hypothermia is when your body temperature drops too low. Working out in wet, cold weather exponentially increases your risk of hypothermia, because your body will begin to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Signs of hypothermia include intense shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination, and fatigue. If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek emergency help right away.


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