The question: I’m a runner. How can I safely exercise outdoors in the bitter cold winter weather?
You’ve made your New Year’s resolutions and want to get rid of those extra holiday pounds, but how to get started? Staying fit by exercising outdoors in cold winter weather brings on some unique challenges.
An outdoor workout on a bracing day has its benefits, especially when gyms are filled with coughing, sneezing work-out addicts and may be a source of contagious colds and flus. Here are some tips on the hazards of outdoor fitness, and how to avoid them:
Exposure and Frostbite
Exposed skin surfaces and extremities are susceptible to injury from contact with cold air, as the circulatory system naturally diverts warm blood away from cold skin in order to keep your core temperature constant. Skin may be red or blanched skin prior to developing frostbite in which the exposed skin actually freezes, and ice crystals cause damage to the affect body tissue.
Nose, ears, lips, fingers and toes are particularly sensitive areas and should be covered and insulated when exercising in cold winter weather less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and even more so when it is below freezing or windy. Warm hats, scarves, facemasks, mittens — which are better than gloves because your fingers keep each other warm — and wool socks should all be a part of your winter fitness wardrobe. You may also consider hand warmers for inside your gloves. Because of the risk of frostbite, never exercise outdoors with exposed arms or legs for more than a few minutes on below freezing days. Symptoms of frostbite may include: pale, white, waxy looking skin that does not blanch with pressure, blisters, numbness or localized swelling in the affected body part. If you think you may have frostbite from prolonged exposure to a cold environment, get inside to a warm place, and seek out emergency medical attention immediately in order to limit physical injury.
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Hypothermia is an inability of the body to generate sufficient heat to maintain a normal core temperature (98.6˚ F), or the loss of too body heat to the external environment. It doesn’t need to be freezing outside to become hypothermic. Wind draws heat away from your body even faster, and so susceptibility to hypothermia is greater on windy days. Initial symptoms of hypothermia include: rapid heartbeat and breathing, shivering, fatigue, dizziness and joint stiffness. As symptoms progress you may experience confusion, impaired judgment or slurred speech.
Make sure that if you are exercising outdoors in the cold, you wear multiple layers of clothing so that you are neither too cold, nor too warm. Perspiration can cause your clothing to become wet, so strip off layers as you warm up. Evaporation from wet clothing can cause even faster loss of body heat, and makes the risk of hypothermia greater. And stay well hydrated. The cardiovascular system is under stress in cold weather, so filling up your tanks with a sports drink or water before you go out is always a good idea. Finally, if you have any medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, asthma or bronchitis, it is probably better to exercise indoors than risk illness due to overexertion in the cold.