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Is It Safe to Exercise in the Cold?

Is It Safe to Exercise in the Cold?
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It’s official: We can retire our bathing suits and pack up the lemonade stands. Colder temperatures have arrived, but there’s no need to stow away the workout gear with the swim trunks. Exercising outdoors in cold weather, from running to skiing, can be completely safe (and will likely bring on the heat!)— but with a few necessary precautions.

It’s Snow Joking Matter — The Need-to-Know


Photo by Justin Singh

Exercise generates heat in the body— enough to make us feel like it's much warmer than it really is [1] [2]. Research suggests that no matter what the thermostat reads, the body will work to maintain the healthy and happy temperature of 98.6˚F [3]. So even though cozying up in that Snuggie might seem like the wiser (and obviously hipper) choice, braving the cold might also generate that warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

Almost everyone can exercise safely in cold weather. In fact, scientists have suggested no temperature is too low to combat as long as we stay suited up and savvy to minimize cold-weather risks [4]. Moderate to high intensity workouts such as running, soccer, ice skating, and skiing pose less risk because they help maintain our core temperature. For those who enjoy less intense cold weather jaunts like ice-fishing or hunting, bundle up for extra precaution to avoid a decrease in blood flow.

Bear in mind, though, those with conditions such as heart problems or poor blood circulation in the hands and feet should check with a doctor before trekking outdoors when the temperature drops. And while a common side effect of cold weather exercise is a Rudolph-red runny nose, it's actually a sign that things are heating up! The inside of the nose moistens to humidify the air we inhale, and the excess fluids creep out our nostrils. (Travel size Kleenex? Check!)

Another bitter reaction to outdoor exercise is pressure in the lungs. But if this less-than-enjoyable sensation strikes, just remember it’s impossible for freezing air to turn our lungs into ice cubes. Wear a scarf to warm up the air that's inhaled, and remain cautious if asthma is a concern, since mixing exercise and cold, dry air can trigger lung tightness and asthma attacks.

Ice, Ice Baby — Your Action Plan

Frigid air and frosty roadways don’t need to be a workout-killer. Before heading out, just be sure to follow this cold weather checklist:

  • Layer up. The first layer should be synthetic to draw sweat away, the second should be heavy fleece or wool to insulate, and the third should be breathable waterproof material to repel wind and rain. Avoid cotton, since it will lose its insulating powers when we become sweaty and wet. For extra credit, wear a face mask or scarf to warm the air before it enters the lungs [5].
  • Cover up the head, fingers, and toes. Blood flow stays concentrated in our core, making our limbs more susceptible to the cold. Be sure to wear gloves, and consider buying roomier shoes to accommodate thick thermal socks. And heads up! A large percentage of body heat is lost through the head, so wear a hat to trap the heat.
  • Avoid the rain and wind. The body has a hard time managing its temperature when soaked; water draws heat away from the body 25 times faster than air because of its higher density and heat capacity [6]. Strong winds can be a dangerous pest, pushing air and moisture through our clothes and removing the layer of warm air that surrounds the body.
  • Don’t overdress. Since our bodies warm up once they get movin’, we should feel cold at first. When performing higher-intensity activities, overdressing can lead to excess sweating, which will cause the body to become wet. Damp skin is an unfortunate conductor of heat loss, and will lower body temperature and up the risk of hypothermia.
  • Know the warning signs. The first sign of frostbite is numbness, followed by a tingling or burning sensation. For hypothermia, shivering and confusion are red flags. By dressing properly, any outdoor-athlete can avoid cold-related injuries.

Just remember, if the weather feels too frigid, no need to push it. There’s always belly dancing.

Works Cited +

  1. Extracellular heat shock proteins (eHSP70) in exercise: Possible targets outside the immune system and their role for neurodegenerative disorders treatment. Krause, M., Rodrigues-Krause, J.C. Biomedical Research Group, Department of Science, Institute of Technology Tallaghat, Dublin, Ireland. Medical Hypotheses, 2011 Feb; 76(2): 286-90.
  2. Adaptation to exercise in the cold.Shepard, R.J. Sports Medicine, 1985 Jan-Feb; 2(1): 59-71.
  3. Temperature Regulation. Cranston, W.I. Royal College of Physicians, London, England. British Medical Journal, 1966 July 9; 2(5505): 69–75.
  4. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: prevention of cold injuries during exercise. Castellani, J.W., Young, A.J., Ducharme MB., et al; American College of Sports Medicine. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2006 Nov; 38(11):2012-29.
  5. Update on exercise-induced asthma. Spector, SL. UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 1993 Dec; 71(6): 571-7.
  6. Thermoregulatory responses affected by wet clothing. Akiko, Maeda, Kazuhiko, Yamasaki, Kayoko, Nojiri, et al. Department of Living Sciences, Nagano Prefectural College, Nagano, Japan. Japanese Journal of Biometeorology. 2006; 43(2): 103-112.

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