Winter fitness: Safety tips for exercising outdoors

Dressing in layers, protecting your hands and feet, and paying attention to the forecast can help you stay safe and warm while exercising outdoors in cold weather.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Cold weather can discourage even the most motivated exercisers. And if you're not as motivated, it's all too easy to pack away your workout gear along with your warm-weather clothing. But you don't have to let cold weather spell the end of your exercise. With these tips for exercising during cold weather, you can stay fit, motivated and warm when the weather turns chilly.

Stay safe during cold-weather exercise

Almost everyone can exercise safely during cold weather. But if you have certain conditions, such as asthma, heart problems or Raynaud's disease, check with your doctor before you work out in cold weather. Your doctor can review any special precautions you need based on your condition or medications you might take.

The following tips can help you stay safe — and warm — while exercising in the cold.

Pay attention to weather conditions and wind chill

Before heading out, check the forecast for the time you'll be outside. Temperature, wind and moisture, along with the length of time that you'll be outside, are key considerations in planning a safe cold-weather workout.

The combination of wind and cold make up the wind chill index, which is commonly included in winter weather forecasts. Wind chill extremes can make exercising outdoors unsafe even if you dress warmly. The wind can penetrate your clothes and remove the insulating layer of warm air that surrounds your body, and any exposed skin is vulnerable to frostbite.

Although the risk of frostbite is less than 5 percent when the air temperature is above 5 F (minus 15 C), the risk increases as the wind chill falls. At wind chill levels below minus 18 F (minus 27 C), frostbite can occur on exposed skin in 30 minutes or less.

If the temperature dips below 0 F (minus 17.8 C) or the wind chill is extreme, consider taking a break or choosing an indoor exercise instead. Similarly, consider putting off your workout if it's raining or snowing unless you have waterproof gear. Getting wet makes you more vulnerable to the cold. And if you get soaked, you may not be able to keep your core body temperature high enough.

Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite is most common on exposed skin, such as your cheeks, nose and ears, but it can also occur on hands and feet. Early warning signs include numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation.

If you suspect frostbite, get out of the cold immediately and slowly warm the affected area — but don't rub it since that can damage your skin. If numbness continues, seek emergency care.

Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature. When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Exercising in cold, rainy weather increases the risk of hypothermia, as does being an older adult.

Hypothermia signs and symptoms include intense shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination and fatigue. Seek emergency help right away for possible hypothermia.

Dress in layers

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when exercising in cold weather is to dress too warmly. Exercise generates a considerable amount of heat — enough to make you feel like it's much warmer than it really is. The evaporation of sweat, however, can make you lose heat from your body and feel chilled. The solution?

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.

Keep in mind, too, that stop-and-go activities, such as mixing walking with running, can make you more vulnerable to the cold if you repeatedly work up a sweat and then get chilly.

Feb. 05, 2014 See more In-depth