Ten Tips for Staying Safe when You Exercise Outdoors in Winter

January 19, 2011

Cross country skiing

It's easy to head out the door for a brisk walk or run when the weather is sunny and mild. It can be more of a challenge when winter's early nightfall and icy chill settle in.

But keeping fit in the winter is just as important to your health as it is during the rest of the year. Regular exercise can increase your energy during the day and help you sleep better at night. It also gives you a way to burn off those extra calories you may have taken in over the holidays. And come spring, you'll be glad you kept yourself in good shape.

With a little planning and a few easy steps, you can exercise outdoors comfortably and safely right through the cold weather. Here are some important tips to keep in mind.

Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia

Hypothermia, or low body temperature, starts to set in when you lose heat faster than your body can make it. It may make you unable to move well or think clearly, and you may not know you have it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list the signs as strong shivering, confusion, fumbling hands, slurred speech, and sleepiness. If your temperature drops below 95 degrees, it is a medical emergency, and you should get help right away.

Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color, and is most often seen on the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. It can make skin look white or grayish-yellow and feel firm or waxy. Redness or pain in any skin area could be the beginning of frostbite. If you suspect it, get out of the cold right away and slowly warm the affected area. Don't rub it because that could hurt your skin. If it stays numb, get emergency care.

Dress in layers

Several light layers are warmer than one heavy one because they trap insulating air between them. They also give you the choice of taking off a layer when you start to get warm.

The experts at the Mayo Clinic say that you first put on a thin layer of man-made material that will draw sweat away from your body. (Don't use cotton. It loses its ability to hold in heat when it's wet.) Next, add a layer of fleece or wool. Top this with a layer that is waterproof and will "breathe." If you're very lean, you may need more clothing than someone who is heavier.

Protect your hands, feet, and ears

When it's cold, blood flows to your body's core to keep vital organs warm. That leaves your hands and feet at greater risk of frostbite. It's a good idea to wear heavier socks. And instead of gloves, wear mittens. They'll keep your hands warmer.

The American College of Sports Medicine stresses the importance of wearing a hat. Heat loss from the head and neck may be as much as 50 percent of the total heat being lost by your body. Wearing a hat or headband will help protect your ears from frostbite, too.

Warm up first

Cold temperatures can make your muscles tight and more likely to be injured. So take a little extra time for a warm-up and gentle stretch before you head out the door.

Make sure you can be seen

With more hours of darkness in the winter, people miss you more easily. Wear clothes or stick-on patches that reflect light so cars can see you.

Know your area

The extra hours of darkness also make it harder for you to see dangers along your route. If you're running or walking, check out your path before you head out so you'll be aware of dangers like curbs and potholes.

Head into the wind

When you start your run or walk, head into the wind and do the second half of your workout with the wind at your back. This way, you're less likely to get chilled if you've worked up a sweat.

Let someone know your route

Be sure to tell someone where you're going and when you expect to get back. If you should fall or have an accident and can't get back to your home or car, you could easily become hypothermic in cold weather. Make sure somebody knows where to find you if you have a problem.

Drink plenty of fluids

Your body needs extra fluids when you exercise no matter what season it is. Drink water or sports drinks before, during and after your workout, even if you're not really thirsty. But stay away from drinks with caffeine or alcohol. Alcohol can cause your body to lose heat faster than normal.

Use good judgment

When the weather is truly at its worst, with a very low temperature or wind chill, or slick, icy conditions, you may want to move your exercise indoors for a few days. Walking the mall is a good way to keep active. And you can always buy a couple of pieces of indoor exercise equipment.

Also, as the Mayo Clinic advises, if you have a medical condition such as asthma, heart problems, or Raynaud's disease, check with your doctor before you exercise in cold weather. Your doctor can help you take any extra safety steps you might need.

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