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In this article:
Appropriate gear is critical for winter workouts.
If you’re new or coming back to exercise, start slow and acknowledge where you are right now.
Exercising outdoors is a lower-risk environment for contracting COVID-19.
Are freezing temperatures cooling off your commitment to exercise? For many of us, dipping mercury is a handy excuse to skip a workout or leave those running shoes sitting forlornly by the door. Swedish sports medicine doc Ronan Cahill, M.D., says it doesn’t have to be that way.
We talked with Dr. Cahill during a snowy day here in the Puget Sound region about the best ways to stay safe during our winter workouts. With all outdoor winter exercise and activity, says Dr. Cahill, preparation is the key to motivation.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather,” says Dr. Cahill “Just inappropriate gear!”
With that in mind, here’s some of his best advice to help you get outside and keep moving this winter.
What are your top five safety tips for outdoor winter exercisers?
- Lights. It gets dark early around here so the single best thing you can do is have lights on your body. Make sure you have both a head light and a rear light so you are visible to traffic and other pedestrians.
- Layer up. It always seems colder before you head out the door, but you’ll start to warm up pretty quickly. I recommend a base layer, warm layer and a shell depending on the weather. For the legs a pair of tights will be fine. For workout clothing, avoid cotton if possible because once it gets wet you will be both uncomfortable and it could put you in a dangerous situation if you get stuck outside. Stick with synthetics or wool whenever possible.
- Protect your digits. Get yourself some quality gloves or mittens and wool socks. Mittens are my favorites; they keep your hands warmer than gloves because they allow your fingers to share warmth and have less surface area for body heat to escape. For outdoor exercises like running or walking, don’t be afraid to invest in hand and toe warmers—they are not just for skiing or snow activity.
- Protect your head. Especially your ears. Your head will get hot much sooner than the ears. I recommend using a head band or other ear specific clothing item so you can still vent heat from your head while keeping those ears comfy.
- Keep an eye on conditions. Be sure to check the weather for forecasts and advisories around rain, snow or wind before you head outside for your workout. We can get rapid changes in conditions here in the PNW during the winter and the worst thing is to be unprepared.
I usually work out in a gym. Is heading out into chilly temps safe?
Yes. While some exercises might need to be modified or shortened, cold weather itself does not prohibit any exercise.
“Of course, you should check with your doctor if you have any concerns,” says Dr. Cahill. “But generally speaking, when moving aerobic exercise outside to cold weather you may notice a decrease in your time or endurance. Don’t worry, this does not equate to a decrease in your fitness, rather your body simply needs to adapt to the new conditions because it takes more energy to warm that cold air and keep your extremities warm.”
In fact, taking your exercise routine outside when the temperature dips can pay dividends.
“Outdoor workouts have all the benefits of exercise, but with the fresh air that goes with it. Cold crisp air is invigorating and energizing,” says Dr. Cahill. “And being outside regularly will also boost your Vitamin D, not by a lot, but certainly more than staying inside. And lastly, in our current environment, exercising outside is a lower risk environment for contracting COVID-19, which is keeping a lot of people out of the gym.”
But what about us couch potatoes?
There’s no bad time to start exercising, and getting outside can change your whole mindset, says Dr. Cahill. After safety, the second most important thing when starting up a new workout routine is managing expectations. This is especially important when heading out the door during wintertime. Still, getting your cold weather sweat on does come with its own special benefits.
“Getting outside gives a totally different sense of success and satisfaction than simply working out in the gym,” says Dr. Cahill. “As with all types of exercise, the key when getting back into exercising or starting out is to start low and go slow. Acknowledge where you are right now and plan accordingly. The surest way to nix those resolutions is trying to do too much at the beginning or trying to start right back at the same level you were at six months, or even six years ago. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned athlete, having the proper gear will make your workout much more enjoyable. And there is no better treat than a nice warm shower and warm drink after a winter workout.”
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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