As winter approaches in many parts of the country, the days get shorter and we spend more time indoors, often causing our fitness programs to suffer. Typically, our exercise regimens are at least partially based on outdoor activities like walking, running or biking. Perhaps you have even increased your daily activity by gardening or walking to work or to do errands. As the temperatures sink and darker days arrive, it becomes more and more difficult to do these things. The key to maintaining habits is to keep at them. One obvious option is to move indoors to a treadmill or other exercise machine, perhaps even taking your walking program to the local mall. But don’t give up on the option of staying outside for a workout.
The first obstacle to outdoor winter exercise is the cold weather. Generally, cold weather is not a danger unless the skin is exposed for prolonged periods in subfreezing temperatures. Less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit is the point at which extreme caution should be taken to protect the skin from exposure, thus limiting the chances of developing frostbite. Frostbite is the freezing of the body’s tissue. A more common condition, hypothermia, can occur in even milder temperatures and is defined as the lowering of the body’s core temperature to 95 degrees or lower. There are many factors for determining how much caution is necessary for braving the great outdoors. The presence of wind, sunshine and humidity are chief among them. Higher humidity and sunshine help maintain heat, while wind increases heat loss and magnifies the effects of cold. Always consider the windchill factor.
The first precautionary measure is to layer your clothing. The first layer should be a "wicking" layer to pull sweat (yes, you will still sweat) away from your skin. The second layer should consist of an insulated material. The thickness of this layer will depend on how cold, including the windchill factor, it is during your exercise session. The outer layer should be a waterproof shell to keep heat from escaping and to keep cold, wind and moisture out. These principles apply to the lower and upper body, so think about the need for appropriate legwear as well. Whether you choose to go for a walk, a run, skiing or just out to shovel the front walk, remember to keep your hands and head protected. A significant amount of heat is lost through the head and hands since there is an abundance of blood vessels in these areas. Keep your hat and gloves on!
Keep in mind that you will be outside to exercise, so don’t overdress, either. Bundling up too much can cause you to sweat heavily which ends up freezing close to your skin, lowering your body temperature. A basic guideline is to go outside and tolerate feeling a little chilly for the first 10-15 minutes of the workout. If you will be exercising vigorously, you might want to consider doing your warm-up indoors and then layer up to go outside.
The last cautionary measure to consider is the increase in darkness during the winter months. Your previous morning or evening run or walk may now be a bit more dim. The follwoing are tips for exercising during darker hours:
- Wear reflective clothing. Many shoes, jackets, pants and hats now include reflective material built into them.
- Wear light-colored clothing. Even with reflective material, it will help you be seen if you are wearing light colors like white, yellow or orange.
- Exercise in well-lit areas. Stay close to street lights and consider LED lights that attach to hats or using a flashlight.
- Stay on routes that are well maintained. Stay off areas that are prone to traffic but not cleared of snow or ice. If your normal route is a sidewalk that has not been cleared, it could put you onto a busy street. Scout out your route ahead of time to check the need for an alternate route.
Don’t be afraid to venture out into the cold, wintery weather. You may just find that a walk or run in the falling snow is peaceful and rewarding. Just take the appropriate precautions to keep safe and warm. Most of all, keep moving!