Heat domes, polar vortexes, snow storms with names – three things I never heard of growing up in New England. New Englanders pride themselves on adapting to ever-changing weather conditions and always being prepared for the extremes Mother Nature unleashes. We’re all old codgers when it comes to the weather. We have heat waves, cold snaps and the only storms allowed to have names are hurricanes. We’re not into these new-fangled terms. But, whatever you want to call it – cold snap, polar vortex, or just friggin’ freezing – let’s talk about working out safely in the great, frigid outdoors.
Unlike working out in extreme heat, working out in cold temperatures can be beneficial if your goal is maximum calorie burn. The body needs to work extra hard to keep the core warm while also supplying the cardiovascular and muscular systems with oxygen and blood to get you through your workout. All of this requires energy in the form of calories burned. But, in order to accomplish this safely, precautions need to be taken.
When not to exercise outdoors. There are specific parameters for when not to exercise in extreme heat and humid conditions, but not when it comes to cold. The reason being it is possible to guard against things like frostbite and hypothermia if one is properly dressed and prepared. Most running community websites seem to agree that it’s okay, if properly geared, to run outdoors as long as the temperature with wind chill is 0 degrees or above. However, the cardiovascular, pulmonary and circulatory systems are under increasing duress the colder it gets. Therefore, those who have cardiovascular diseases (such as heart disease), pulmonary diseases (such as asthma, emphysema or COPD), or conditions that affect the circulatory system (such as diabetes or atherosclerosis) should check with their treating physicians for patient specific guidelines for exercising outdoors in cold weather.
The right gear. Dress in layers. If you are planning a vigorous workout, you will sweat no matter how cold it is. The under layer should be fabric that wicks away moisture so you’re not contending with a wet, heavy layer of fabric directly against your skin. Synthetic fabrics are best, avoid 100% cotton garments. The second layer is your insulation layer to absorb and capture heat from your body. You want it to be warm but not bulky. Wool and fleece are good insulating yet lightweight fabrics. If it’s especially windy or damp, a lightweight outer layer with a water resistant shell is a good choice. Even better if it has mesh venting in the armpits to allow for evaporation.
If you will be doing a more moderate workout, such as walking, your body won’t be generating quite as much ambient heat and you will feel the elements if it’s under 20 degrees. In those cases, choose a synthetic under layer (see above) with a parka/ski jacket and fleece lined warm-up pants as the outer layer.
No matter the type of workout planned, you need to protect against frostbite. Fragile tissues in the extremities – hands, nose and other areas of the face, ears and feet – are especially vulnerable to frostbite. Make sure these areas are covered and avoid prolonged exposure when temperatures with wind chill get close to single digits.
Know the current and predicted conditions and choose accordingly. Generally speaking, it’s better to avoid early mornings and mid-to-late evenings since these tend to be the times when it’s darkest and coldest, increasing all the risk factors for injury and exposure ailments. If these times can’t be avoided choose well-lit routes, wear reflective clothing and a light. But, even in daylight, there are still plenty of dangers when temperatures are below freezing. Know the current air and wind chill temperatures and if there are any major changes expected in terms of wind speed and precipitation while you will be out. Be cognizant of road or trail conditions and choose routes that have the least amount of ice and snow cover. And, the colder and windier the conditions, the shorter your workout should be.
Pick the roads more travelled. If you should take a spill off your bike or severely turn an ankle on your jog in extremely cold and windy conditions, a few extra minutes of waiting for help to get to you could put you at high risk of frostbite or hypothermia. This is especially true if you’re working out alone. Stick to well-travelled areas, have a charged cell phone with you, and be sure loved ones know your route and how long you plan to be out.
Maybe it’s my New England blood, but I love outdoor workouts in the winter. There’s something about the crispness of the air, how all the man-made noise is buffered by the layers of snow yet the songbirds seem (somehow) just a little louder, and the solitude isn’t lonely but rejuvenating. Give it a try, you just might like it.
Author’s note: Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.