Heating Up Your Workout in the Cold Outdoors

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My personal feeling (and I believe I’m not alone) is that winter is for curling up with a mug of cocoa and a good book, not for donning a windbreaker and running for miles through snow and ice. Yet every winter, I see people not only voluntarily strapping on skis and snowshoes, but also doggedly continuing their usual outdoor workout routines by jogging or hiking in the cold, bundled up and seemingly oblivious to the inclement weather. Being a person that you might describe as “indoorsy,” I pity these poor souls, who obviously didn’t get the memo that if God had wanted us to be outside in the winter, he wouldn’t have created hot toddies.


It’s easy to assume that winter sports enthusiasts and outdoor exercisers can accomplish superhuman feats of thermogenesis, but in fact, the cold is mostly a psychological hurdle, not a physical one. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or just someone who wants to go for the occasional winter bike ride, knowing how cold affects the body can help you prepare to battle the blusters.


The Heat Is Off
Exercising is an especially good idea during wintertime because people so often feel heavy and sluggish during that season. Our bodies have evolved to respond to cold weather by becoming hungry; burning fuel creates heat, which warms us up. During the winter, some people also experience increased appetites because of the decreased amount of daylight, which prompts these individuals to eat starchy, carb-heavy foods that cause serotonin levels to spike and make them feel better temporarily. All of these circumstances conspire to make us pasty and pudgy in the winter, but regular exercise is all we need to counteract them. Getting moderate exercise not only keeps us thinner but also can keep us healthier by boosting our immune system. Studies have shown that people who get regular exercise in the winter experience 20 to 30 percent fewer colds than nonexercisers. 


The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Performance Training Journal reports that moderate exercise typically generates enough heat for people to maintain the correct body temperature, even in weather as cold as – 22º F, but cold weather affects the body differently than warm weather does. It forces our cardiovascular systems to increase our blood pressure and heart rate and diverts blood away from the skin, preserving body heat. At the same time, our airways and breathing passages constrict, making breathing a bit tougher. But even though the cold has a slightly negative effect on the body, it shouldn’t scare anyone away from exercising outside. Even the Mayo Clinic reports that almost everyone can do it safely, even those with asthma or heart problems. 


Chill Out
One of the biggest exercise myths is that those dedicated folks who work out in the cold are burning more calories than those of us who prefer to keep our workouts indoors, on the treadmill. Actually, the opposite is true. About 75 percent of the energy we produce during exercise is lost to heat, and in the winter, our bodies use that heat to keep us warm, In the summer, though, our bodies have to expend extra energy to dissipate the heat and cool us down by rushing blood up to our skin and causing us to sweat. Those who do winter sports that require heavy equipment might burn some extra calories lugging their skis, helmets, showshoes, skates, or boots, but the caloric difference between cold and warm weather is negligible for people who are simply jogging, walking, or hiking. 


There is one situation, however, in which cold weather does burn more calories, and that’s when a person shivers. Shivering is a response to extreme cold, and it causes muscle spasms and movements that spur the metabolism to keep the body warm. It’s a warning sign, though, not a way to increase the efficacy of a workout, so if you’re outside and begin shivering, it’s important to get indoors as soon as possible to prevent further cold-related injury. 


The primary problem with exercising outside during the winter is that we’re more likely to encounter hazards. Cold weather leaves us more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia, slush and ice make falling and tripping more likely, and snow can affect visibility. Besides not going outside in obviously dangerous weather, the most important outdoor precaution to take is simply to dress warmly, preferably in layers. Multiple thin layers (as opposed to one thick one) create the most effective insulation against the cold, trapping body heat near the skin. Layers also allow you to remove clothing if you get too hot. People with greater amounts of body fat will be naturally more insulated against the cold and won’t need as much clothing to stay warm, but everyone, regardless of body size, should be sure to wear gloves, a hat, and heavy socks, because cold weather causes blood to rush to your core, leaving extremities vulnerable (30 to 40 percent of body heat is lost through the head alone). People with mild asthma or who are sensitive to dry air may want to invest in a face mask. 


Cold weather dampens our thirst, so be sure to keep drinking plenty of water. Even if we’re not sweating as much as in the summer, we still lose moisture through exhalation. Also, winter is no excuse not to wear sunscreen. Especially if you’ll be exercising near snow or at high altitudes, make sure to wear at least SPF 15 on every uncovered body part. Of course, a good warm-up and cooldown are even more important during the winter, to be sure your muscles stay warm and pliant. The experts’ biggest piece of advice for winter exercise—whether it’s running, skating, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing—is to begin by heading into the wind. On your return, you’ll be bolstered by the wind at your back and less likely to experience wind chill if you’re sweaty. 


Unless you suffer from a serious medical condition or are pregnant, outdoor exercise shouldn’t pose a problem, whether it’s a few miles in snowshoes or just an afternoon spent shoveling the driveway. Don’t let the cold stop you from heading outside this winter and staying active. Come next summer, your bathing suit will thank you.


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