How to Exercise Outdoors in Winter Weather
When it starts getting cold during the winter months, you may feel less inclined to venture outdoors. However, staying cooped up indoors all winter isn't good for your health, and can leave you at greater risk for winter ailments such as colds and flu. To exercise outdoors in winter weather, keep yourself warm and protected from the elements. You might even find a particular winter activity, such as skiing or ice skating, that you enjoy so much it hardly feels like working out.
Enjoying Winter Activities
Try skiing or snowboarding.Skiing and snowboarding are traditional cold weather sports that also give you a good cardiovascular workout. If you're new to the sports, recognize that they require a significant investment of time and money to get started.
- If you live in a mountainous area, you may be able to find a slope that offers lessons for beginners and equipment rentals that are relatively reasonable – especially if you go early in the season (typically October). This can be a good way to try out the sport and see if you enjoy it before investing too much money.
- Lift tickets tend to be less expensive on weekdays and late at night.
- If the slopes are a little too intimidating for you, cross-country skiing may be more your speed. Cross-country skiing is a whole-body workout that gets your chest, arms, and legs moving in tandem.
Go ice skating.Ice skating is a low-impact aerobic exercise that can greatly increase your balance and coordination. It works out many smaller stabilizer muscles, which can improve your performance in other activities, such as running or yoga.
- If you're just starting out, you may want to take some lessons first so you can get everything down and learn to skate with good form. You typically can find an hour-long class that meets once a week for six to eight weeks for less than 0.
- You may want to wear a helmet to start – many instructors require them. You can use a hockey helmet, or a skiing or snowboarding helmet.
- Wear warm, light layers that give you plenty of mobility. Avoid jeans, as they can become stiff and decrease your mobility. Additionally, jeans can get wet when you fall (which you will, when you're just starting out), making you colder and increasing your risk of hypothermia.
Pick up snowshoeing.Snowshoeing is a cross between walking, hiking, and nature viewing for the winter. It's hard work, especially when you're a beginner, but it gets easier with practice. It's highly rewarding and it definitely keeps you fit.
- As an added benefit, you often snowshoe in areas where winter wildlife can be spotted, making this an excellent opportunity for nature lovers to take photos or even draw quick sketches.
- Snowshoeing is easy to learn – if you can walk, you can snowshoe – and requires minimal equipment. All you need are a good pair of snowshoes, which you can find at most sporting goods or winter sports specialty stores, especially in more northern areas.
- You also may want to use poles to balance as you walk. The type of poles doesn't matter, as long as they have the proper length for you to use them when you walk.
- Take a break after about 10 minutes to do some squats and lunges to stretch your muscles and decrease stiffness later.
Play in the snow.Kids know how to get lots of exercise when there's snow on the ground, sledding, making snow angels, and even having a snowball fight can get your blood pumping. You don't have to be a little kid to participate in these kinds of activities and have a lot of fun.
- Making snow angels may not seem like exercise, but they're really just horizontal jumping jacks.
- A snowball fight works your chest, back and arms (throwing) as well as your lower body (dodging and running).
- Sledding is a great way to get a good workout, because once you get to the bottom of the hill you have to run back up again. Think of it as interval training with a fun slide. You can even use your arms and upper body to steer your sled.
Build an igloo or snow fort.If you're planning on going out with friends or family, building an ice structure can be a real team-building experience as well as a good workout. When you're done, you can curl up together with a mug of hot cocoa in your new ice and snow retreat.
- Search online for plans to build an igloo, or wing it with your own snow fort. You can build a snow fort the same way you would build a sandcastle at the beach – you can even use some of the same tools.
- If an igloo or a fort seem a little over-the-top to you (or you don't have that much snow and ice available), you can always make a snowman. Rolling and packing the snow to build the snowman are pretty good exercise, and you also get the opportunity to use your creativity with decorations.
Walk or run.If you got into the habit of a daily afternoon walk or a morning jog when the weather was warm, there's no reason to stop it just because it turned colder. You just have to take a few extra precautions to make sure that you stay safe and warm.
- If there's likely to be ice and snow, invest in a pair of winter or all-terrain running shoes that have plenty of tread. A clerk at a sporting goods store or running specialty shop near you should be able to help you find something that will work for you.
- Due to the risk of falls, you should avoid going walking or running if there's a significant amount of ice on the ground.
- Dress in layers, and wear reflective clothing if you're going to be out after dark. Keep in mind that the sun sets earlier during the winter months.
Wear layers.When you exercise, you generate a lot of heat. If you dress too warmly, you can get overheated – even in frigid outside temperatures. Wearing several layers of clothing allows you to remove clothing as your exercise intensifies.
- Start with a thin layer of clothing made from a synthetic material. This will draw the sweat away from your body. Look for a long-sleeved garment for your upper body and some leggings for your lower body.
- A layer of fleece over that layer provides insulation and protection against the outdoor temperatures. Keep in mind that if you're a relatively thin person, you may need additional layers of insulation.
- Your top layer should be waterproof and wind-resistant. You often can find dual-layer winter jackets meant for winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding. These jackets combine a waterproof outer shell with a removable fleece lining.
- If you're not accustomed to exercising outside, you may have to experiment with your clothing a little until you find the right combination. Keep your sessions brief while you're doing this so you don't risk frostbite or hypothermia.
Choose the right clothing.The clothing you choose for exercising in winter weather will differ significantly from the exercise clothing you wear in warm weather, as well as the casual clothing you wear to keep you warm in the winter.
- Cotton and wool are bad fabrics to wear when you're exercising, because they trap sweat next to your body. You may wear a layer of cotton or wool for insulation, but you should have at least one layer of synthetic fabric under it, next to your body.
- Your clothing will differ depending on the activity. If you plan to go skiing or snowboarding, you want to wear gear that will keep you warm and dry, since you'll be in close contact with snow.
- Some specific winter clothing is multipurpose. However, you still want to make sure the clothing you choose is suitable for the particular activity. For example, a dual-layer snowboarding jacket may be just fine for playing in the snow with kids, but it would be too bulky to wear when ice skating or going for a jog.
Protect your hands and feet.You should wear gloves and thick socks to keep your hands and feet warm and covered. Doubling up with a thin, moisture-wicking liner and thick socks and gloves is helpful for intense activities.
- Make sure you can move your hands and fingers, particularly if you're engaged in a sport or activity that requires more dexterity.
- Your shoes should be heavy-duty and waterproof. If you're wearing sneakers or running shoes, you can buy water-repellent spray at most sporting goods stores to protect them (and your feet).
- Make sure the soles of your shoes have sufficient tread for the terrain. If you're going to be exercising in an icy area, you may want to wear cleats.
Cover your head and face.As much as 40 percent of the body heat you lose while outside in the winter is lost through your head. A warm hat that covers your head and ears is essential, and covering your face is recommended in snowy or windy conditions.
- You may want to wear a headband or earmuffs over your ears, and then wear a hat on top of that.
- Covering your mouth with a scarf also can help warm the air before you breathe it, making it less of a shock to your body.
- If you're going to wear a face covering, make sure you have good visibility and can breathe easily. In the case of a single garment designed to cover your head and face, such as a ski mask, good fit is essential or it will end up being more of a hindrance than anything else.
- You also may need goggles to protect your eyes in snowy conditions. Protect them from the glare of the sun off of snow with sunglasses or tinted goggles.
Warm up your muscles.A longer and more extensive warm-up is required when you're going to be exercising outdoors in winter weather. Since the outside temperature is so low, it will take longer to get your muscles warm enough to exercise without risk of injury.
- In warm weather, a five-to-ten minute warm-up typically will suffice. However, if it's cold out, plan on spending 15 to 20 minutes warming up before you get into your workout. A brisk walk is a good warm-up, along with dynamic stretching if you're doing a more whole-body activity such as skiing.
- You might consider starting your warm-up inside and then heading outdoors for the rest of your workout. However, you still should allow at least 5 minutes of light-to-moderate activity to give your heart and lungs the chance to adjust to the cold air.
- Don't start any sort of intense aerobic activity outside in the cold – not even shoveling snow – until you've thoroughly warmed up and stretched any tight areas.
Eat warm carbohydrates.There's a reason oatmeal and chili are considered winter comfort foods – they're the best way to warm yourself up after a period of outdoor exertion. Soup and pasta achieve the same effect, along with drinks such as hot cocoa or mulled cider.
- Try to have something warm within 20 minutes of coming indoors after intense winter activity.
- After exercising outdoors in winter weather, your post-workout snack is as much about bringing your body temperature back up as it is about refueling your muscles.
- Avoid drinking ice-cold water during or after your workout, as it will make you colder.
Consult your physician.If you have any chronic health problems such as asthma, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start any intense physical activities outdoors. Your doctor can alert you to important precautions that will keep you safe during your outdoor winter activities.
- Start conditioning your body for several weeks if you plan to do any vigorous winter activities, such as skiing or snowboarding.
- Intense physical activity in winter weather puts you at higher risk for a heart attack, so if you have a chronic heart condition you probably should avoid exercising outdoors in winter weather, especially when temps are near freezing.
- You also should consult your doctor if you have any chronic medical conditions for which you're currently taking medication. Exercising outdoors may interfere with the effectiveness of your medication.
Pay attention to the wind chill.The wind chill is a combination of outside air temperature and wind velocity. Checking the wind chill in the weather forecast before you go outdoors to exercise will tell you what the temperature "feels like" on your skin.
- Extreme wind chill can make outdoor exercise dangerous because the wind will penetrate your clothes, leaving you vulnerable to frostbite.
- Use the temperature, air moisture, and wind chill to plan your outdoor activities. As long as the air temperature is above 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius), the risk of frostbite is minimal. However, this risk increases depending on the wind chill.
- Avoid outdoor activities if the temperature (accounting for wind chill) is below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18 degrees Celsius), or if there's heavy rain or snow.
Learn to recognize symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia.Frostbite and hypothermia are a risk for anyone who spends significant time outside in the winter. You're especially at risk if you're engaging in intense physical activity, because you may be less likely to notice the signs.
- Your fingers, toes, hands, feet, ears, nose, and cheeks are most likely to get frostbitten. If your skin turns gray or yellow, you may have superficial frostbite.
- If you think you have frostbite, get to a warm location as soon as possible and try to warm up by placing the affected area under lukewarm water or under a blanket. Get someone else to test the temperature of the water, since you won't be able to feel it if you are numb. Avoid putting frostbitten skin too close to direct heat, such as a fire or a stove.
- Hypothermia is a risk if you are cold and wet, particularly if you spend any length of time in very cold water. If you have extreme shivering, shallow breathing, sleepiness, stiffness, or shallow breathing. Get warm and dry as soon as possible and seek immediate medical attention.
- You also should remember to wear sunscreen on any exposed skin. It doesn't have to be hot for you to get sunburned.
Stay well hydrated.It can be hard to notice that you're getting dehydrated when you're out in the cold, but with intense physical activity you're going to lose a lot of water. Drink plenty of water during your activity as well as before and after, even if you don't feel thirsty.
- You might consider a sports drink if you're engaging in intense activity, as it will hydrate you more quickly and provide your body with the electrolytes it needs.
- If you're going to be outside for an extended period of time, take care to keep your water protected so that it stays reasonably warm. Drinking ice-cold water will hydrate you, but it will make you feel much colder.
Use the appropriate safety gear.Your shoes should have enough traction to keep you from falling on whatever terrain you face, and you need a helmet and goggles if you're going skiing or snowboarding.
- The sun sets earlier in the winter, so wear reflective clothing or use ample lighting if you're going to be out after dark.
- If you're going ice skating or skiing, or participating in another activity that involves equipment, test everything before you head out to make sure it's functioning properly.
Adjust to high altitude.If you're traveling to the mountains, for example to go skiing or snowshoeing, give your heart and lungs a day or two to adjust to the thinner air. During those days, spend time outdoors frequently, but avoid over-exerting yourself.
- Taking brief, brisk walks can help your body get acclimated to the air at a higher altitude. Start low and work your way up, the same way mountain climbers do before climbing Mount Everest.
- Practice deep breathing, and breathe slowly and consciously. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth will help you get more air into your lungs.
- If you start to feel as though you're not getting enough oxygen, stop your activity immediately and engage in deep breathing. Expand your chest and belly as you inhale, then compress as you exhale, squeezing the air out. Pause before inhaling again.
Video: How To Dress For Cold Weather Running
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