“Exercising in the cold is not a health hazard and can be a healthy activity,” said Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor with Pittsburgh’s Tauberg Chiropractic & Rehabilitation.
That said, it’s not difficult to avoid disaster. Here are key ways to assess your risk and mitigate potential hazards once you’re outside.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
Know the temperature and wind chill
“We know if you step outside on a cloudy day where the dry-bulb temperature is minus 10, it feels very different than on a sunny day where it’s minus 10 but you have the solar load,” said Mike Tipton, a professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England, and a contributor to the ACSM’s expert consensus statement.
But if you want to have a set figure to rely upon, the ACSM recommends staying inside when the temperature is below minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 22 degrees Celsius).
Be aware of your personal risk factors
Unfortunately, some people are more susceptible than others to injury or ill health when exercising in the cold. The ACSM lists men, Black people, smokers, and those with heart and vascular diseases among the groups predisposed to frostbite.
“People with asthma, and especially exercise-induced asthma, should be very careful about working out in the cold,” Tauberg said. “Asthma can be exacerbated by cold, dry air and cause asthma attacks.”
Dress in layers
One of the most critical aspects to safely exercising in the cold is dressing in layers, with three being the magic number: an inner layer touching your skin that draws sweat to the outer layers; a middle layer that serves as your main insulator; and a light outer layer that repels wind and rain while allowing moisture from your body to escape.
Adjust your layers as needed
The main purpose behind layering your clothes is that it enables you to remove items as you heat up, then put them back on when you cool down.
If you don’t remove layers as you warm up, you will likely overheat and become sweaty. And when you sweat, the water droplets fill the gaps in between your layers, replacing the air that helps with insulation. While you’re exercising and still creating heat, a little sweat isn’t a huge issue. But if you stop moving you’ve got a problem, because cold air and water is a deadly combination that fosters hypothermia.
“It’s difficult to keep taking stuff off, putting it in your rucksack, then putting it back on,” Tipton said. “The urge to keep going is enormous. But you have to fight that urge and just do it.”
Pay attention to your footwear
Some people assume an insulated, waterproof boot or shoe is the best winter footwear. Yet if you don an insulated and vapor-impermeable shoe or boot, you will sweat and end up with cold, wet feet. You may even develop frostbite wearing that oh-so-warm shoe, Tipton said, although if your feet are cold and wet for many hours, it’s more likely you’d develop a nonfreezing cold injury such as trench foot, which can be a significant problem.
So make sure to select vapor-permeable footwear for your winter workouts. And if you’ll be walking, running or hiking where there is a lot of ice, slip on traction cleats or snowshoes.
Drink, drink, drink
The best thing to do is drink before, during and after you exercise. “Sip water frequently, don’t guzzle it,” said Sue Hitzmann, a New York City manual therapist and connective tissue specialist. “If you drink more consistently more often, your cells stay more hydrated and you transport nutrients more efficiently.”
Downing 10 ounces of water every 30 minutes is the recommendation of Dr. Mark Slabaugh, a sports medicine and orthopedic surgeon at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. “However, increased wind chill necessitates even more fluid consumption,” he said.
Fuel yourself properly
“If your blood sugar falls too far, you’ll lose your shivering ability and your perception of cold,” Tipton said. “You’ll tend to think you’re warmer than you are.”
Stretch before and after you exercise
Stretching is even more important during the cold winter months, when your muscles contract to conserve heat, which makes them tighter and more prone to injury, said Jorden Gold, founder of Stretch Zone, a chain of practitioner-assisted stretching facilities, and adjunct professor at Educating Hands School of Massage.
“Think of your muscle like a stick of taffy,” he said. “A cold stick of taffy would tear or break if you tried to quickly bend or stretch it before warming it up in your hands first.”
Gold recommends performing dynamic warm-up stretches, such as leg kicks or arm circles, for at least 10 minutes when temperatures sink to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). Add five minutes to that for every 10 degrees colder. After you exercise, doing some cool-down, static stretches — holding a position for 30 seconds or more — will help slow your heart rate and relax your muscles, plus improve your range of motion and flexibility for future workouts.