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

Frigid temperatures can discourage even the most motivated exercisers. Without motivation, it's easy to pack away your workout gear for the winter. But you don't have to let cold weather spell the end of your fitness routine. Try these tips for exercising during cold weather to stay fit, motivated and warm.

Stay safe during cold-weather exercise

Exercise is safe for almost everyone, even in cold weather. But if you have certain conditions, such as asthma, heart problems or Raynaud's disease, check with your doctor first to review any special precautions you need based on your condition or your medications.

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

Check weather conditions and wind chill

Check the forecast before heading outside. Temperature, wind and moisture, along with the length of time that you'll be outside, are key factors in planning a safe cold-weather workout.

Wind and cold together make up the wind chill, a common element in winter weather forecasts. Wind chill extremes can make exercising outdoors unsafe even with warm clothing.

The wind can penetrate your clothes and remove the insulating layer of warm air that surrounds your body. Any exposed skin is vulnerable to frostbite.

The risk of frostbite is less than 5% when the air temperature is above 5 F (minus 15 C), but the risk rises as the wind chill falls. At wind chill levels below minus 18 F (minus 28 C), frostbite can occur on exposed skin in 30 minutes or less.

If the temperature dips below zero F (minus 18 C) or the wind chill is extreme, consider taking a break or choosing an indoor exercise instead. 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. It can also occur on hands and feet. Early warning signs include numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation.

Immediately get out of the cold if you suspect frostbite. Slowly warm the affected area — but don't rub it because that can damage your skin. Seek emergency care if numbness doesn't go away.

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. Older adults and young children are at greater risk.

Hypothermia signs and symptoms include:

  • Intense shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • Fatigue

Seek emergency help right away for possible hypothermia.

Dress in layers

Dressing too warmly is a big mistake when exercising in cold weather. 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, pulls heat from your body and you 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 to find the right combination of clothing for you based on your exercise intensity. If you're lean, you may need more insulation than someone who is heavier.

Keep in mind 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.

Protect your head, hands, feet and ears

When it's cold, blood flow is concentrated in your body's core, leaving your head, hands and feet vulnerable to frostbite.

Wear a thin pair of glove liners made of a wicking material (such as polypropylene) under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens lined with wool or fleece. Put on the mittens or gloves before your hands become cold and then remove the outer pair when your hands get sweaty.

Consider buying exercise shoes a half size or one size larger than usual to allow for thick thermal socks or an extra pair of regular socks. And don't forget a hat to protect your head or headband to protect your ears. If it's very cold, consider wearing a scarf or ski mask to cover your face.

Don't forget safety gear and sunscreen

If it's dark when you exercise outside, wear reflective clothing. And if you ride a bike, both headlights and taillights are a good idea. To stay steady on your feet, choose footwear with enough traction to prevent falls, especially if it's icy or snowy.

Wear a helmet while skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling. Consider using chemical heat packs to warm up your hands or feet, especially if you have a tendency to have cold fingers and toes or if you have a condition such as Raynaud's disease.

It's as easy to get sunburned in winter as in summer — even more so if you're exercising in the snow or at high altitudes. Wear a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays and a lip balm with sunscreen. Protect your eyes from snow and ice glare with dark glasses or goggles.

Drink plenty of fluids

Don't forget about hydration, as it's just as important during cold weather as it is in the heat. Drink water or sports drinks before, during and after your workout, even if you're not really thirsty.

You can become dehydrated in the cold from sweating, breathing, the drying power of the winter wind and increased urine production, but it may be harder to notice during cold weather.

Putting it all together for cold-weather safety

These tips can help you safely — and enjoyably — exercise when temperatures drop. Closely monitor how your body feels during cold-weather exercise to help prevent injuries such as frostbite.

Consider shortening your outdoor workout or skipping it altogether during weather extremes, and know when to head home and warm up. Also, be sure to let someone know your exercise route and your expected return time, in case something does go wrong.

June 29, 2019 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Slide show: 5 smart exercise choices for psoriatic arthritis
  2. 6 tips for an active getaway you'll remember
  3. Accentuate the positive to make lasting health changes
  4. An appointment to exercise? You bet!
  5. Are you ready for a workout?
  6. Balance training: Boost your long-term health with these exercises
  7. Barriers to fitness
  8. Blood Doping
  9. BMI calculator
  10. Body fat analyzers
  11. Boot camp workout
  12. The role of diet and exercise in preventing Alzheimer's disease
  13. Core exercises
  14. Create a home gym without breaking the bank
  15. Did you exercise today? Reward yourself!
  16. Toning shoes
  17. Does fitness trump thinness?
  18. Don't have an exercise budget? Go cheap!
  19. Dress smart for winter workouts
  20. Early bird or night owl? Plan exercise accordingly
  21. Exercise benefits
  22. Exercise and chronic disease
  23. Exercise and illness
  24. Stress relief
  25. Exercise: Every minute counts!
  26. Exercising with arthritis
  27. Exercise smarter, not longer
  28. Exercise: Check with your doctor
  29. Exercising regularly? Track your progress!
  30. Fitness program
  31. Fitness: Take it 1 step at a time
  32. Fitness motivation
  33. Fitness ball exercises videos
  34. Fitness barriers: Bust 'em
  35. Fitness for less
  36. Fitness ideas for the entire family
  37. Fitness program
  38. Fitness takes more than huffing and puffing
  39. Fitness tip: Get physical at home
  40. Fitness tip: Get physical at work
  41. Fitness tip: Include your friends
  42. Fitness training routine
  43. Fitting in fitness
  44. Going up? Take the stairs
  45. Golf injuries
  46. Golfers: Know when to call it quits
  47. Golfers: Tee up common sense
  48. Hanging out with friends? Activity counts!
  49. Hate to exercise? Try these tips
  50. Heart rate
  51. Heat and exercise
  52. Hockey Flywheel
  53. How fit are you?
  54. How much exercise do you really need?
  55. 3 easy ways to get started with yoga
  56. Is exercise a chore? No more!
  57. Keep your workout fun
  58. Know when to move your winter workout indoors
  59. Late-day exercise
  60. Marathon and the Heat
  61. Mayo Clinic Minute: How to hit your target heart rate
  62. Miss a workout? Don't give up!
  63. Natural movement: Going back to basics
  64. Need a gym to get fit?
  65. Need exercise motivation? Put it on paper
  66. Need motivation to exercise? Try a diary
  67. No pain, no gain? No way!
  68. No time for exercise? No way!
  69. Office exercise
  70. Overuse injury prevention
  71. Pregnancy and exercise
  72. Ready to get in on the aquatic fitness movement?
  73. Simple tips for staying active and mobile with osteoarthritis
  74. Core-strength exercises
  75. Guide to stretches
  76. Balance exercises
  77. Fitness ball
  78. Starting a fitness program? Take it slow
  79. Starting an exercise program: Take time to rest
  80. Stay fit and healthy — without breaking a sweat
  81. Stay fit at any age
  82. Travel and work
  83. Strength training: How-to video collection
  84. The best ways to bounce back after a tough workout
  85. 5 common sports injuries in young female athletes
  86. To stay fit, embrace the power of play
  87. Too busy to exercise? Get up earlier
  88. Too sick to exercise?
  89. Fitness tips for business travelers
  90. Walking for fitness: Getting started
  91. Want to get fit? Try backyard aerobics!
  92. What it takes to be agile at any age
  93. Winter blahs? 4 pro tips to get you off the couch.
  94. Winter weather tip: Watch for signs of frostbite
  95. Working out? Remember to drink up
  96. Workout blahs? Don't go it alone!