Winter Fitness: How To Stay On Track When The Weather Turns Cold

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful….”

Are these classic holiday lyrics still ringing true well into the new year?  It’s not hard to see why!

Warm sunny days beckon us to get outside and move.  Meanwhile, cold, cloudy days tend to make us want to snuggle up on the couch with a good book, the remote control and our favorite comfort foods.

No matter the season, the body requires proper nutrition, rest and MOVEMENT throughout the year – not just on picture perfect days.  Wellness doesn’t take the winter off.  In fact, as colds and viruses abound, it’s more important than ever.

So how do we keep moving?  Bad weather can be a discouragement to people who have a solid fitness routine in place, not to mention for those who are just starting out on their health journey – but only if we let it!  Check out these tips to help you keep moving on the cold days and stay on track for your goals.

How cold is too cold?

While many people are able to find ways to safely exercise in colder temperatures, there are additional precautions to take in account.  People with conditions such as heart/circulatory problems, diabetes, breathing problems or Raynaud’s disease should check with their health care provider to determine what, if any, extra safety precautions may be needed, and when it’s time to find an indoor option.

Even if you do not have a health condition that can be impacted by the cold, always check the weather conditions, including wind chill, before heading out.  Wind blowing through the weave of clothes can negate the layer of warm air between your body and your clothes that is acting as an insulator.  Therefore, it is important to choose garments designed for the weather. Cleveland Clinic orthopedic surgeon Dominic King, DO suggests dressing in layers:

  • Layer 1: moisture wicking material to move moisture (i.e.sweat) from the body to outer layers of clothing so it can evaporate
  • Layer 2: insulating layer, such as wool or fleece
  • Layer 3: wind and rain repellent – Unless it is raining, snowing or very windy, this layer should be worn before and after exercise, and during rest times to prevent moisture being trapped near the body.

A visit to your local sporting goods store or website can help you find a wide range of garments designed to wick away sweat while also retaining heat.

It is also important to know the wind chill factor in addition to the actual temperature when exercising outdoors in winter months.  The Mayo Clinic points out that “Any exposed skin is vulnerable to frostbite.”   The human body has multiple self-preservation actions, one of which is that when exposed to cold temperatures, blood flow becomes more concentrated to the body’s core to protect vital organs such as the heart, and lungs.  To do that, blood does not flow as freely to the extremities, leaving head, hands and feet more vulnerable.  This is why gloves, hats and socks are so important in the winter.  As with other clothing, layers are best to allow you to remove clothing as your body warms up and begins to sweat while still protecting you from the elements.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “the risk of frostbite is less than 5% when the air temperature is above 5˚ F, but the risk rises as the wind chill falls.”  We may not get negative temperatures much in Tennessee, but we do get below freezing.  The National Weather Service has developed a Windchill Chart which also shows about how long for frostbite to occur.  At 0 ˚ F, with a wind speed of 15mph, the wind chill is a fridged -19 ˚ F and frostbite can begin in as little as 30 minutes!

If outdoor exercise is not an option, there are always indoor activities.  Visit a fitness center (some will allow you to pay by the day rather than get a membership) or rearrange some living room furniture and do a workout at home.  Free workout videos are easy to find online and there are plenty of ways to get moving that use common household items or none at all – run in place, do jumping jacks, use your kitchen chair or couch to do dips, do sit-ups and pushups, hold a plank for as long as you can, use canned goods as small hand weights.  Look around your home and use your imagination!

Safety Gear

When it’s cold, but not that cold, head on out, but don’t forget your safety gear!  Running in the neighborhood?  Wear reflective clothing and have a light so you can be seen.  Rough terrain or possible icy patches?  Make sure you have footwear with traction (and determine if it’s not a good day for activities that include sudden movements, stops or turns).  Riding your bike?  Reflective gear, headlights and taillights are important to be seen and don’t forget your helmet!  Visiting a cooler area to do snow skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling?  Dress for the weather and, again, don’t forget a helmet.  Anytime you are outside during the day for longer periods of time, remember your sunscreen!  It’s easy to forget that it’s possible when the temps are cooler, but once it occurs, it feels as bad as a summer sunburn!

Water, water, water

Hydration isn’t just a summer issue!  Your body needs water year-round.  Sweating, breathing and the drier air of winter can all contribute to dehydration.  So, keep that water bottle close by or consider a hydration vest for hands free exercise.

Start slow and progress from there

Keep in mind that when it’s cold, our body may be less inclined to move, so it’s best to start slow.  Planning to go for a run?  Start by walking, then jogging for a few minutes to wake up those muscles.  Cleveland Clinic suggests dynamic stretching to warm up for your workout.  Don’t hit the hardest part of the bike trail to start.  Begin at a more level spot on the trail and let your body get into it before pushing the hardest.

As with any season, having clear goals, a plan and means for accountability are always helpful to keeping your motivation strong.  And if you still need a nudge, consider this; not only will you be getting all the usual benefits of exercise, but a 2019 research study concluded that “Recreational winter exercise at moderately cold temperatures reduces allergic airway inflammation … and induces sustainable improvements in allergic symptoms.”  How’s that for a health bonus?

If you have concerns about beginning an exercise plan, or an obstacle that you have encountered in your fitness activities, talk to your doctor of chiropractic.  As experts on the musculoskeletal system, chiropractors can offer guidance on types of exercise, stretching, preventing injury and many other aspects of incorporating fitness into your life all year long.

 

Resources:

Mayo Clinic Staff.  “Winter fitness: Safety tips for exercising outdoors” June 29, 2019.  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/fitness/art-20045626 accessed 1/17/23

Cleveland Clinic. “How to Stay Active Outside When the Weather Gets Colder – Keep active in the cold” December 17, 2020 https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-stay-active-outside-when-the-weather-gets-colder/ accessed 1/17/23

Bireline, Amanda National Institute for Fitness & Sport. “10 Winter Fitness and Wellness Tips” Jan 3, 2017 https://www.nifs.org/blog/10-winter-fitness-and-wellness-tips accessed 1/17/23

Prossegger J, Huber D, Grafetstätter C, Pichler C, Braunschmid H, Weisböck-Erdheim R, Hartl A. Winter Exercise Reduces Allergic Airway Inflammation: A Randomized Controlled Study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Jun 8;16(11):2040. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16112040. PMID: 31181728; PMCID: PMC6603979.  accessed 1/17/23

National Weather Service.  “Stay Safe in the Extreme Cold” https://www.weather.gov/dlh/extremecold  accessed 1/17/23