Exercising Outdoors in Cold Weather

More than 200 million Americans are experiencing less than freezing temperatures. The Weather Channel this morning reported that there were 350 cold temp records set in 45 states. We are getting late December weather in mid-November.

I hope the onset of extreme cold weather is not deterring you from the exercise you do outside. It may be less comfortable, but just as rewarding to continue after temps drop as long as you follow some simple rules.

As a Chicagoan, I never even leave my apartment without checking the weather report. We have 25 degree temperature ranges nearly every day and it can be very easy not to mention uncomfortable to make a mistake about the weather.

Once temps fall below freezing, you need to be on guard against frostbite. This occurs on exposed skin.

On the 99 percent of your skin that is covered, you will want to wear layers. It is a big mistake to dress too warmly to exercise in cold weather. Your exercise will generate a lot of heat, but as your sweat evaporates, you will lose body heat and could become chilled.

Dr. Mike Bracko, of the American College of Sports Medicine with an EdD in exercise physiology, said that the first place you start is what you wear. “Most people dress too warmly. The key is how many layers.”

For running last week in Calgary where the temp was 17 degrees Fahrenheit, Bracko wore a first layer of wool and synthetics which wick away perspiration from your skin.

Further on that subject, the Mayo Clinic says, “Dress in layers that you can remove as soon as you start to sweat and then put back on as needed. First, put on a thin layer of synthetic material, such as polypropylene, which draws sweat away from your body. Avoid cotton, which stays wet next to your skin.

“Next, add a layer of fleece or wool for insulation. Top this with a waterproof, breathable outer layer.

“You may need to experiment before you find a combination of clothing that works well for you based on your exercise intensity. If you’re lean, you may need more insulation than someone who is heavier.”

As a 150 pound five foot nine guy, I can relate to that last part about needing more insulation. My lack of fat (insulation) requires more attention. One last point on layering: it is a perfect example of 1 + 1 = 3. How so? When you add one layer you are also adding a layer of dead air in between and dead air is the best insulator in the world.

Now that we have the body covered, what about the extremities? I can attest that my most vulnerable points are my fingertips and toes.

If you are wearing more than one layer of sox, or thicker sox, Bracko suggests getting shoes about a half size bigger.

After experimenting with goose down filled ski gloves, I have settled on simple glove mitts. These are convertible mittens that slide back to reveal bare fingers. In their mitten mode these keep my fingers warmer than anything I have ever tried.

Toes are another problem. I wear wool sox and in extreme cold put wool sox over thin layered silk ones. But the best thing for protecting my toes is a layer of tinfoil on the bottoms of my shoes that reflects the heat of my body back up and warms my toes.

You may have noticed by now that the material cotton has been pretty much conspicuous by its absence. You don’t want cotton next to your skin in the cold. It absorbs perspiration and then makes you cold as your body cools. The synthetic materials wick away the perspiration and keep you comfortable.

You can exercise outside and get the benefits of both exercise and being outdoors if you just take a few precautions. I know that for cold weather biking, it is just as much fun to ride in the cold and there are usually less people out competing for space on the bike path.

For more on cold weather exercise, check out A Cold Weather Exercise Tip, 11 Cold Weather Exercise Tips, Cold Weather Cycling Tips.


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Filed under cardiovascular health, Exercise, weight control

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