Almost everyone can work out safely in cold weather.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, no temperature is technically too low for exercising outdoors, as long as you suit up to minimize cold-weather risks. (Though they do say to be extra careful if it’s below –18°F. Brr…)
While it’s obvious that high intensity workouts — like boot camp training and running on a treadmill — are better choices for staying warm than, say, yoga, your body will work to maintain a core temp of 98.6°F no matter what you’re doing.
“I still remember working out in 9 degrees,” says Anthony Burdi, co-founder of The Rise, a year-round outdoor workout group based in New York City. “Afterward we said, ‘I can’t believe what we just did!’ But it’s not as bad as you think.”
Exercising outdoors when the temperature drops below freezing does come with some challenges.
Still, that runny nose, while a bit annoying, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s more of an adaptive measure to keep your sinuses from getting too dry. In chilly, dry weather, the inside of your nose moistens to humidify the air you inhale, and the excess fluids creep out your nostrils.
As for that icy air hitting your lungs? It’s basically impossible, outside of Arctic conditions, for freezing air to damage your lungs (though it can irritate your airways). Try wearing a scarf and keeping layers on your chest to feel warmer as you inhale.
There are, of course, a few groups of people who should be cautious before trekking outdoors for a midwinter run.
If you have asthma, cold, dry air can trigger lung tightness and asthma attacks during exercise.
And if you’ve been diagnosed with poor blood circulation or heart problems, check with your doc before hitting the frozen pavement. According to a 2015 study, people with cardiovascular disease are at increased risk of heart attack while exercising in the cold.
1. When wind chill is in the negatives, skip the outdoors
“Extreme wind chill can make it unsafe — even if you dress warmly,” says Lipi Roy, MD, an internist and instructor at NYU School of Medicine. As a general rule, if it’s warmer than 5 degrees Fahrenheit, your chances of frostbite are low, Roy says.
But when the windchill brings temps down to below –15 degrees, exposed skin can get frostbitten in less than 30 minutes. Translation: The indoor treadmill is calling your name.
2. Know the warning signs
The first signs of frostbite are cold, red skin, followed by tingling, numbness, or a burning sensation. If you suspect frostbite, head back inside and warm the affected area gradually by running it under lukewarm water or wrapping it in a warm blanket, Roy says.
While you can treat superficial frostbite at home, hypothermia is a true medical emergency. If anyone you’re working out with has slurred speech, intense shivering, or a loss of coordination, get to a hospital stat.
3. Wear synthetic fabrics, fleece, and wool
“The first layer should be synthetic — something that will wick moisture away from your skin,” Roy says.
The second layer should be fleece or wool to help insulate, and the third should be a breathable, waterproof layer to help repel wind.
Another pro tip: Avoid cotton. It loses its insulating power when you become sweaty.
“The one thing I’m always really adamant about is having something dry to change into,” says Chris Lopez, another member of The Rise. “When the workout is over, you don’t want to be stuck in wet, sweaty clothes when it’s 30 degrees outside.”
4. Cover your head, fingers, and toes
Blood flow stays concentrated in your core, perpetually pumping from (and returning to) your heart. This makes your limbs more susceptible to the cold.
In addition to wearing gloves, consider roomier shoes to accommodate thermal or wool socks.
It’s a myth that you lose most of your body heat through your head, but it’s still important to bundle up that noggin to stay warm. For extra protection, wear a face mask or scarf.
And don’t forget sunscreen on your exposed face — especially if you’re skiing. “UV rays are just as strong in the winter,” Roy says.
Lopez also suggests an unconventional idea: Wear latex gloves under your regular gloves. That way, if you’re doing burpees or push-ups on any potentially wet or icy surface, your hands won’t end up wet, even if your gloves do.
The same goes for your feet. “Put a small plastic bag on each foot, then your socks, then your shoes,” Lopez says. Sure, it may look a little goofy, but it’ll be worth it when you’re nice and toasty in frigid weather. (And who’s looking inside your shoes, anyway?)
5. Avoid the rain and wind
When it’s cold out, it’s best to keep the art of racing in the rain to a minimum. Your body has a hard time managing its temperature when soaked — water draws heat away faster than air.
This is, of course, a plus for those times when you’re sweating in hot temps, but it’s not so great for exercising in an icy downpour.
Meanwhile, freezing wind chill can be dangerous (as we mentioned earlier). In addition to quickly making the outdoors feel much colder than the thermometer says, wind pushes air and moisture through your clothes and removes the layer of warm air that surrounds your body. #Rude.
6. Don’t overdress
Since your body warms up once you get moving, it’s OK to feel cold at first. When you’re doing higher-intensity activities, overdressing can lead to excess sweating, which will cause your body to become wet.
Damp skin is, unfortunately, a conductor of heat loss and will lower your body temperature, increasing the risk of hypothermia. The solution isn’t very scientific: “Just experiment [with layers] and see what your body best tolerates,” Roy says.
7. Enjoy the scenery
Don’t forget that being outside likely means better views — no matter where you live.
“For us, we get time to enjoy New York for New York — enjoy all the beauty,” Lopez says. “If you’re at the gym, you always see the same thing.”
Exercise outdoors can even be a chance for mindful meditation as you focus on the beauty of the world around you.
Finding your groove with outdoor exercise in the cold may simply take a bit of trial and error.
If you’re feeling like your early morning run or cycle session through the park is a bit too brisk, there’s no shame in finding a more temperate alternative. (Hey, there’s always hot yoga.)
But if you dig walking (or running or biking) in a winter wonderland, rest assured that if you follow these tips, safety likely isn’t an issue.