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Wintertime Safety Tips For Outdoor Exercise

If you follow Sanjana Fitness on Instagram, it should be no surprise to learn that I love outdoor exercise as part of my fitness routine, even in the cold winter months. As part of Sanjana's philosophy of addressing health holistically, I believe exercising outdoors is a great way to practice gratitude and self-care for your body, mind, and soul.

Between growing up in rural New York, spending most of my life near the Great Lakes, and more than 16 years of cold weather training as a soldier, I've picked up a lot of helpful, cold weather safety tips along the way.

I love cold-weather exercise, and I hope your fitness exploration brings you to the same conclusion. With my cold weather safety tips for outdoor exercise, you'll be equipped to push your boundaries, step out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons in the great outdoors.

Here are some of my top tips for cold-weather exercise.

Layer Up

This is the basic cardinal rule of wintertime exercise safety. Even if you're just shoveling snow (which can also be a workout), it's essential to dress in layers of clothing that can easily be added to or downgraded.

For extended periods of outdoor exercise, I recommend wearing two pairs of socks. The inner pair can be tighter fitting and thinner than the outer pair. I like to wear crew cut socks or long thermal socks as the outer pair because they can pull up over spandex, legging, or cold weather undergarments to seal in a layer of body heat. Avoid layers of synthetic material, which pollute the environment and don't provide the moisture-wicking that cotton does.

I also start my base layer with tighter, thinner garments like a tank top tucked into spandex leggings. Add layers as needed. You can experiment with which layer combinations make you most comfortable outdoors on days you're working in your own yard or exercising near home. That way, changes can be made with little inconvenience.

I also feel a lot more comfortable when my neck is covered. If I'm shoveling snow or hiking, I wear a scarf or gator-neck that I can pull over my face to protect against wind, if needed. Since this doesn't really work for outdoor runs, I usually wear a beanie and a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up.

Extremities First

My single best piece of advice for cold weather physical activity is this one.

Extremities often get the least blood flow and have difficulty maintaining body temperature. If your ears, feet, and hands are icy cold, you will not enjoy your time outside. Period.

I always wear two pairs of socks during outdoor activities in the winter, no matter what they are. If you're hiking, skiing, or snowboarding, make sure your feet can fit comfortably in your boots, allowing the outer layer of socks to be a little loose around the toes so as not to cramp your feet.

If you think your feet might get wet, I advise against prolonged outdoor exercise. If you can't avoid it, consider putting a plastic bag over each sock-covered foot before putting your boots on. (This isn't advised for outdoor running).

Hats are essential, especially for covering your ears. Gloves with fingers will retain less heat than mittens, so consider wearing gloves inside of your mittens for prolonged activity. The extremities will be colder than your core body temperature, so providing the added protection they need is crucial.

Dry Feet Are Key

It has been my experience that I can get comfortable with a mild chill anywhere except in my feet. Wear the proper footwear and above all else, keep your feet dry!! Wet feet can cost you a lot of body heat and put you at risk for hypothermia.

On top of keeping feet dry, make sure your footwear is appropriate for the outdoor activity you're planning. Hiking boots should have a great grip because slips and slides are likely in the winter. Running shoes should have great grip and cushion your foot as you run. My personal favorite running shoes are by Brooks. They never fail me and feel fantastic on my feet, which can be picky after nearly two decades of running on city streets and concrete.

Consider Exercise Intensity

One thing that people tend to forget about outdoor exercise in chilly temperatures is that even though it might feel different, it's still exercise. You're still working hard, and you're still sweating.

Sweating excessively can create a chill against your skin and cause you to lose body heat quickly. Consider the intensity of your planned outdoor exercise and adjust the intensity accordingly. As a baseline, do not exercise with greater intensity outside in the winter than you would in a gym or your home gym, especially if the temperature is below freezing.

Limit intense exercise to 60 minutes or less between check-ins/ warming up indoors. Check in frequently with the sensations in your body, especially the extremities and exposed skin. If skin becomes numb, tingly, or burns, move indoors and begin to warm your body slowly with mildly-warm heat. Be careful not to warm cold weather injuries too quickly.

Don't Forget To Hydrate

Because you'll be sweating, as with any workout in your exercise routine, you need to hydrate! Even if you don't feel like you're sweating, you need to ensure your body has adequate hydration for exercise and recovery.

Like with regular exercise, if you begin to feel light-headed, very thirsty, confused or unusually fatigued, move inside and drink water. Water consumption should be regular and continuous, not overloaded just before exercise.

On that note, it is also important to remember not to exercise on a full stomach. Allow your body 30 to 60 minutes to begin digestion, so that your energy systems are not overwhelmed with both exercise and digestive functions.

Check The Forecast

Winter weather in the Great Lakes region and the North East United States can change rapidly, especially as our climate does. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to predict severe weather, so knowing the forecast in advance is crucial. Even then, prepare for extremes.

Understand that where the sun is in the sky (time of day) and the wind chill will have big impacts on how warm or how cold your body feels during winter time exercise. Add extra layers on windy days or days with a colder wind chill. Be aware of impending precipitation, sunset times (which change every day by a few minutes) and temperature changes that will occur during your workout. Generally, the warmest part of the day is in the afternoon, between 1:30 and 3:30 pm.

Hiking Safety

Hiking outdoors in the winter has some added risks as compared to other outdoor activities. The risk of becoming injured through a slip or fall or getting lost on a hike can mean complications for you if you're not prepared.

It's always recommended to hike with a pair or a group and be aware of sunset times and forecasted weather, including wind chill. Remember that the temperature can drop quickly after sunset, so if you find yourself far from your target as the sun begins to go down, know how to call for help.

I like to send someone my location and an approximate check-in time after my winter hikes. That way, if your phone dies or gets wet, you have someone who knows where you are.

Also, keep in mind that even world-class tech like my iPhone 12 and Beats headphones fail in freezing weather. Below-freezing temps can sometimes (but not always) drain your battery or cause your device to be unresponsive. If you're hiking in the afternoon or think there's a chance you could get caught in the woods after sunset, conserve your battery life.

For longer hikes, or hikes through new trails or densely wooded terrain, consider packing the following items in a backpack:

  • Extra socks and gloves

  • Hand warmers (Reusable ones, please! Like these)

  • Glucose tablets, energy bars, or fruit for quickly metabolized energy

  • At least 1 liter of water per hour (Plan for about 1 mile per 20-30 minutes)

  • A personal water purifier (Like these)

  • Headlamp or flashlight

  • Charged cell phone

  • Wireless cell phone charger, if you have one

  • Flares

  • First aid kit basics like gauze, bandages, and a splint

  • A compass

  • Waterproof bags

  • Sports drinks

  • Lip balm

How To Tell If You Have Frostbite

Frostbite in its early stages (frostnip) can be caught early enough to prevent tissue damage. Frostnip will feel like tingling, loss of feeling, burning, or inflamed skin. Skin will begin to change color, and a spectrum of colors is possible, including completely white, deep redness, or purple spots. Skin that becomes waxy or inflamed might be frostbitten.

Frostbite is most likely to occur on exposed skin, so wear gloves to reduce your risk of frostbite and protect your extremities!

Treating Cold Weather Injuries

Frostbite should be treated by a medical professional because tissue damage is possible and can worsen without proper treatment. Frost-Nipped extremities should be treated by coming indoors and applying warm heat. Avoid extreme heat or rubbing, which can further damage the skin.

Average body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 degrees Celsius. When body temperature approaches 95 degrees or lower, hypothermia can set in.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, signs of hypothermia include:

Signs of mild hypothermia (95° F to 89.6° F // 35° C to 32° C):

  • Shivering and chattering teeth

  • Exhaustion

  • Clumsiness, slow movements, and reactions; prone to falling

  • Sleepiness

  • Weak pulse

  • Fast heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)

  • Pale skin color

  • Mental confusion and poor judgment/loss of awareness

  • Excessive urination

Signs of moderate hypothermia (89.6° F to 82.4° F // 32° C to 28° C):

  • A slowdown in breathing and heart rate

  • Slurred speech

  • A decline in mental function

  • Loss of shivering

  • Bluish color to the skin

  • Muscle stiffness

  • Dilated pupils

  • Abnormal heart rhythm

  • Decreased blood pressure

  • Weakened reflexes

  • Loss of consciousness

Signs of severe hypothermia (< 82.4° F // 28° C):

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fluid in lungs

  • Absence of reflexes

  • Low urine output

  • The heart stops beating (cardiac arrest)

  • Coma that may mimic death

  • Death

To treat mild hypothermia:

  1. Move indoors and replace wet clothing and garments with dry ones.

  2. Wrap the body in a blanket and begin slowly warming.

  3. Follow up with emergency care if the temperature does not start to rise.

To treat moderate and severe hypothermia, call 911 or get to an emergency medical center right away. There, doctors may need to administer intravenous fluids, supply oxygen, or warm and recirculate your blood through an IV.

When To Avoid Exercise

I love and encourage outdoor exercise in the winter, even when the temperature is well below freezing! But based on my experience, there are some times when I recommend that you avoid winter weather activities. These include:

When you're sick

When you have a viral infection or are feeling under the weather, it's best to skip outdoor exercise. It can be challenging to recognize sensations, including pain, dizziness, and fatigue in winter weather. Skip the outdoor workout when you're sick and join me for yoga instead.

When you haven't been eating enough

Are you getting over a cold? Had a busy last few days at work or home? Working in a calorie deficit? Then skip the outdoor workout. Weakness and fatigue can also be difficult to recognize in winter weather, which is why it's crucial to approach an outdoor activity with the proper energy levels during the winter. While winter workouts are manageable, they can be risky if you're not prepared. Show up prepared!

When you've recently had a cold-weather injury

Recent frostbite or hypothermia might be enough to scare you away from cold weather exercise altogether. But if it's not, make sure you've given yourself enough time to recover. Tissue damage from frostbite should be completely healed and well-covered before you try outdoor activities again. Be aware that tissue previously damaged by frostbite might always be sensitive to cold temperatures.

If you have poorly managed diabetes or you are a smoker

These conditions put you at greater risk of poor circulation and cold weather injuries.

In Summary

Cold weather exercises is an amazing way to connect with your body and with nature! It takes time to get comfortable in cold weather, but the right preparation helps. Sometimes trial and error is needed to find your comfort zone, so make sure you know what you need before planning intense exercise or long hikes.

Be safe out there and most importantly, be adventurous! Check out our Instagram page for more images from my favorite hiking trails all throughout the year (and the states!)

Be well my friends.

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