Your biggest cold-weather exercise problems solved
Outdoor exercise is more popular than ever before. In fact, a 2020 report from the Outdoor Industry Association shows that the COVID-19 pandemic, along with gym-related restrictions, has led to more Americans taking their workouts outdoors — with running, cycling and hiking leading the charge.
“This year has changed everything in terms of outdoor workouts,” says Dr. Kathryn A. Boling, a Mercy Medical Center family medicine specialist based in Lutherville, Maryland.
But as the temperatures dip and winter weather settles in, you don’t have to cool off your outdoor workout habit. Here, doctors share how to solve your winter workout woes for a safe, healthy season.
Dress in moisture-wicking fabrics.
In the cold, the body prioritizes the delivery of nutrient-rich blood to the body’s core and organs. While that helps to naturally protect the body from internal temperature drops and hypothermia, it shunts blood away from the periphery, increasing the risk of frostbite in the hands, feet, ears and nose, explains Dr. Baruch Fertel, an emergency medical physician with the Cleveland Clinic.
Frostbite is an even greater risk for people who have existing circulatory issues such as Raynaud’s syndrome. Raynaud’s, in which vasospasms reduce blood flow to the body’s appendages, most commonly to the fingers, affects 3% to 5% of all adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.
To keep blood-poor areas of the body warm and reduce the risk of frostbite and cold injury, Fertel recommends dressing in multiple layers that you can add or take off as necessary to stay warm and keep sweating to a minimum.
Focus on dressing all cold-sensitive tissues with moisture-wicking fabrics, he says. You can also split small, air-activated heat packs into your gloves or mittens, and you can consider applying warming creams to the skin before starting your workouts, recommends the Raynaud’s Association.
Protect your lungs with a face mask.
According to a 2018 review published in Primary Care Respiratory Medicine, about 1 in 5 people experiences bronchoconstriction — a tightening of the airways — during exercise. That constriction is often at its peak during cold-weather exercise, as cold air can further dry out and inflame the pathway that moves air into and out of the lungs, Fertel explains.
If this sounds familiar, you can reduce the risk and severity of flare-ups by wearing a face mask that covers the nose and mouth. Doing so will help warm and humidify the air moving into your airways. “They are unbelievably helpful for warming and humidifying the air you breathe,” he says.
Performing a progressive exercise warmup before getting into the heart of your workout can also help. If you still have issues, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and possible inhalers and pharmaceuticals for keeping your airways open.
Use high-traction footwear.
“Every year, during the winter, we see a spike in the number of wrist, hip and ankle fractures — in people of all ages,” Fertel says. He notes that while ice- and snow-covered surfaces drastically increase the risk of falls, bulky, sometimes stiff, confining or heavy cold-weather gear like coats and mittens can make it more difficult to maintain our balance.
For that reason, he recommends pairing high-traction footwear with an assistive walking device such as a Nordic walking pole that’s designed to pierce or grip ice- and snow-covered surfaces. You can also purchase snow and ice cleats to attach to your favorite walking or running shoes.
Warm up before you get going.
Slipping on ice is an easy way to suffer a strain or sprain. (A strain is a pull to a muscle or tendon, and a sprain is a pull to a ligament.) But ice aside, on their own, cold temperatures can increase the risk of exercise tissue injuries, Boling explains. After all, as the body shunts blood to the body’s core and internal organs, the muscles lose out on some blood supply. This can reduce tissue elasticity and function, increasing the risk for pulls and other injuries.
“Any time we work out, we should be warming up with some kind of movement to increase blood flow to muscles,” she says, “but it’s especially important when exercising in the cold.”
Dedicate at least five minutes to a gentle warmup — doing bodyweight exercises and dynamic stretches such as squats and arm swings — before heading outside, she recommends. Once outside, reserve any high-intensity exercise until your body has acclimated to the temperature.
Few people think of dehydration as a potential winter workout problem, but it’s surprisingly common, according to Fertel, who explains that most people underhydrate during cold-weather exercise. That’s in part because exposure to cold temperatures dulls the body’s thirst sensation, according to research, by roughly 40%. This may be due to changes in hormone levels.
What’s more, because cold, wintry air is notoriously dry, any sweat lost during winter workouts is apt to quickly evaporate and go unnoticed, Boling explains. If you don’t want to carry a water bottle (which can make your hands colder), try wearing a hands-free hydration pack during your workouts. Barring that, take special care to hydrate as soon as you return from your workouts. Even after a low-intensity, 25-minute walk, you should hydrate, she says.
Wear reflective gear.
In general, it’s not advisable to run or walk when there’s limited visibility, such as after sunset. Unfortunately, in the winter, nightfall comes early. That’s why, if possible, it can be helpful to schedule outdoor workouts in the middle of the afternoon, such as during your lunch break, Boling says.
If you do happen out after dark, take the appropriate safety steps. Stick to lighted paths, out of traffic and wear reflective or light-flashing gear so you stay visible to nearby people and cars. You can also wear a sports headlamp to help light your path while keeping your hands free. Taking further fall- and injury-prevention measures, such as wearing winter cleats, can help reduce the risk of slipping on hard-to-spot ice patches.
Tips to stay healthy outdoors
Here are ways to solve your winter workout woes for a safe, healthy season.
— Dress in moisture-wicking fabrics.
— Wear a face mask.
— Use high-traction footwear.
— Warm up before you work out.
— Stay hydrated.
— Wear reflective gear.
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