Cold-Weather Exercise

Keeping up your exercise routine in cold weather has extra benefits. First, outdoor exercise is a great way to cure the "winter blues." Second, exercise increases your energy levels, which tend to be lower during bouts of cold or gloomy weather. Finally, exercise boosts your immune system, so you may find that you get fewer winter colds.

During the winter, even motivated exercisers can find it hard to keep up with their workouts. And for many of us, it can become all too easy to put exercise on hold. But it is important for your heart health to continue your routine during the cold-weather months.

Keeping up your exercise routine in cold weather has extra benefits. First, outdoor exercise is a great way to cure the “winter blues.” Second, exercise increases your energy levels, which tend to be lower during bouts of cold or gloomy weather. Finally, exercise boosts your immune system, so you may find that you get fewer winter colds.

Continuing an exercise routine during the winter does not mean you have to stay inside. With the right clothing and proper planning, you can get the most out of your workout, including outside during cold weather.

Pointers and recommendations for cold-weather exercise

  • Start gradually to get into condition. If you have been exercising and doing vigorous activities, you will be ready to enjoy winter sports. However, as with ANY exercise program, you should start getting into condition several weeks before going on that winter vacation.
  • Dress in layers. Even if you are heading out in the cold, do not dress too warmly. Exercise generates a lot of heat. Once you start to slow down and your sweat begins to dry, you will get chilled. It is best to dress in layers that you can remove as you begin to sweat and then put back on as you cool down. Also, avoid wearing cotton, which will absorb your sweat and stay wet. Newer fabrics that wick moisture away from your body are great options for that first layer directly against your skin. Next, wear a fleece layer, or anything that is going to provide insulation. Finally, top it off with a waterproof, breathable outer layer.
  • Protect your hands and feet. When you are out in the cold, your body sends blood to its core, which means you are more likely to get chilled hands and feet. Wear a thin pair of gloves under a heavier pair. Also, allow extra room in your winter footwear for thermal socks or 2 pairs of regular socks.
  • Cover your head. Always wear a hat or headband and cover your neck, because as much as 50% of your body’s heat is lost through your head and neck.
  • Cover your mouth. Wearing a scarf or mask helps warm the air before you breathe it. This is especially helpful if breathing cold air causes angina or you tend to get a lot of upper respiratory infections.
  • Wear sunscreen. You can just as easily get sunburned in the winter as in the summer, especially if you are exercising in the snow or at high altitudes.
  • Wear the right gear. Wear reflective clothing if it is dark, wear the right footwear for snowy or icy conditions, and always wear a helmet for skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.
  • Get accustomed to higher altitude. Winter exercise can often mean going to a much higher altitude than you are used to. Give your body at least a day or two to adjust to the altitude before exerting yourself in activities like hiking or skiing.
  • Stay hydrated. Remember to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout. You can become just as dehydrated in the cold as you can in the heat. (See “Hydration Tips” for a good discussion of exercise and fluid intake.) Do not drink juices or sodas during exercise, because these drinks contain more than 10% carbohydrates (sugar) and are not absorbed well during exercise. When it comes to workouts lasting less that 1-1/2 hours, there is no difference between drinking sports drinks and cool water to stay hydrated. Sports drinks usually contain less than 8% carbohydrates, but drinking too many can lead to consuming extra calories. Sports drinks do replenish the salt and minerals lost through sweating, although a healthy diet is usually adequate for this.
  • Protect your eyes. Wear dark glasses or goggles if you are in an area where there is a risk of snow and ice glare.
  • Pay attention to wind direction. Head into the wind at the start of your workout so you have the wind at your back on the way home. At the end of your workout, you will most likely be sweaty, so the wind at your back means you will not be as chilled.
  • Know about wind chill. Wind chill can make it feel colder than it really is. Fast-moving activities such as skiing, skating, or running also create a wind chill. If the temperature falls below zero (minus 17.8°C), and wind chill is a factor, it might be best to choose an indoor activity on that day.
  • Know about frostbite and hypothermia. Be aware of the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia (see below), and know when it is time to get indoors.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol increases heat loss, so you are more likely to get hypothermia. Alcohol also impairs your judgment, so you might not make the best decisions in a cold-weather emergency. It is best to leave alcohol at home if you are heading out on that winter hike, or wait until your day’s skiing and snowboarding are done, when you can safely enjoy a drink in the lodge.

How cold weather affects the heart

Winter is also the time when cardiologists warn people headed to the ski slopes or doing any strenuous activity outside about the increased risk of heart attacks. The added risks for skiers, snowboarders, and winter tourists in general are related to the combination of high altitude, freezing temperatures, and inadequate physical conditioning.

Research has shown that beginning intense physical activity under harsh winter conditions can put you at risk. In fact, a study of heart attack victims showed that the risks for winter tourists were greatest during the first 2 days of their winter vacation. The study’s authors pointed out that before their vacations, more than half of the patients got less than the minimum recommended levels of physical activity. Altitude may also have been a factor.

But you don’t have to be out skiing in the mountains. Doctors have known for some time that things like simply shoveling snow can strain a person’s heart, potentially causing heart attacks or abnormal heartbeats. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people who are outdoors in cold weather should avoid sudden exertion, like lifting a heavy shovel full of snow. Even walking through heavy, wet snow or snow drifts can strain your heart. The AHA also points out that people with coronary artery disease are more likely to have the pain of angina in cold weather.

Cold-related illnesses and injuries

Anyone who spends a lot of time outside in cold weather can get frostbite or hypothermia. If you are going to be exercising or spending long periods in cold weather, it is important to dress properly, know the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia, and know when it is time to get indoors or seek medical attention.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is the freezing of your skin or tissues. Your fingers, toes, hands, feet, ears, nose, and cheeks are the areas of your body most likely to get frostbitten. Kids are at greater risk for frostbite than adults, because they lose heat from their skin faster than adults do and because they are less likely to leave their winter fun to go inside and warm up.

Frostbite happens when the blood vessels in the skin narrow (constrict). Because less blood can flow through the narrowed vessel, the fluid in and around the skin cells develops ice crystals.

There are 2 kinds of frostbite: superficial frostbite and deep frostbite. With superficial frostbite, the affected part of the skin turns gray or yellow, but the skin remains soft. After the skin thaws, it becomes red and flaky. With deep frostbite, the skin looks waxy and feels hard. When it thaws, it turns blue or purple and may blister.

If you think you have frostbite, here is what you should do:

  • Try to get to a warm location.
  • See a doctor right away, if you can.
  • If your toes or feet are frostbitten, do not walk around.
  • Do not pop the blisters.
  • Do not rub the affected areas. You can place the frostbitten areas in lukewarm water, under warm blankets, or against other warm body parts.
  • Do not hold the area up to direct heat, such as a fire or stove.
  • Do not put ointments or bandages on the affected areas.
  • Do not drink alcohol to warm up.

Frostbite can be dangerous. It can cause the tissue to die (gangrene). In serious cases, amputation of the dead or infected tissue may be needed. There is also a risk of heart attack if frostbite occurs with total body hypothermia.

What is hypothermia?

In cold weather, your body may lose heat faster than you can produce it. This can lead to an abnormally low body temperature, or hypothermia. Hypothermia can make you sleepy, confused and clumsy. Because it happens gradually and clouds your thinking, you may not realize you need help.

Anyone who spends a lot of time in cold weather can get hypothermia. You can also get it from being cold and wet, or if you are in very cold water for too long. Babies, elderly people, and people with heart disease are especially at risk. As we age, it becomes harder to maintain a normal body temperature. Because elderly people seem to be relatively insensitive to moderately cold conditions, they can get hypothermia without even knowing it.

Symptoms of hypothermia include

  • Confusion and sleepiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Change in behavior
  • Extreme shivering or no shivering at all
  • Stiffness in the arms and legs
  • Poor control over body movements

Hypothermia is very dangerous. A body temperature below 95° F can lead to death if not treated right away. If you experience any of the symptoms or observe the symptoms in others, get medical attention immediately.

What is frostnip?

Frostnip is the redness and tingly feeling that affects the cheeks, nose, ears, fingers, and toes after they have been exposed to the cold. Frostnip can be treated at home by removing wet clothing from the affected area and slowly rewarming the chilled body parts in warm water. If your hands or fingers are frostnipped, make sure you have somebody else test the water temperature for you, because numb hands will not feel the heat.

What are chilblains?

Chilblains are the painful swelling of the small blood vessels in your skin when you try to warm up cold skin too quickly. Chilblains may cause itching, redness, swelling, and blisters on your fingers, toes, nose, and ears. Chilblains usually respond to lotions and medicines and usually clear up in 1 to 2 weeks.

People with poor circulation are more likely to get chilblains. Women are also more likely, but it is not known why. People with Raynaud’s phenomenon are also more likely to get chilblains. If you have poor circulation or diabetes and you have had chilblains, you should see your doctor to prevent any complications.