It's the winter walker's dilemma: to venture outside into the cold for a workout, or stay toasty warm on an indoor gym track or home treadmill.
Thankfully, just because it's cold outside doesn't mean your walking routine has to undergo a temporary freeze.
Both treadmills and outdoor walking have their pros and cons. Walking on a treadmill is easier on the body than walking on pavement, says Lon Wilson, director of the Healthwalking program for the New York Road Runners Club, and the weather can never be a deterrent. However, the routine can get monotonous, and you can get slightly shortchanged on conditioning, since the belt does some of the work for you. Setting the incline to 1.0 will provide a more challenging workout.
6 Ways to Walk Safely in the Cold
Outside walks provide a change of scenery and terrain, which can help stave off boredom. And because no equipment is needed, the financial investment is minimal. And you can work in a walk just about anytime, anywhere. Of course, winter weather can make walking unpleasant, and there are always safety hazards — uneven sidewalks, vehicular traffic, and secluded spots — to avoid.
Just because it's winter doesn't mean you can't hit the streets or sidewalks for your workout. However, exercising in the deep freeze can be dangerous. Use these tips to stay safe when running in the cold:
Don’t expect to set a new PR.
Your performance in the cold can start to decrease as the temperature begins to drop below 40 degrees. Peripheral blood vessels constrict, joints will feel stiffer, and muscles will be more challenging to warm up. These performance deficits may be small and can be easily overcome by thoroughly warming up and proper dress.
Make sure to warmup.
Focus on an appropriate and progressive warmup to ensure that you do not strain a muscle or injure your joints. Marching in place or jumping jacks indoors for at least five minutes can help you warmup.
Dress in layers.
You just need to be prepared for the weather. When gearing up for a walk outside while the weather is still cold, think in layers so that you can peel off clothing as you warm up or add it if you get chilly. Here are some helpful hints for what to wear, from the inside out:
Make sure your underwear waistband isn't digging into your hips. You've got to be comfortable. But keep in mind that you'll be moving around a lot, so treat layer number one like sportswear and opt for something snug.
To keep skin dry, your second layer should be a synthetic material, such as CoolMax or polypropylene, which wicks sweat away from the body. The garments should also be seamless — clothing with thick inner seams may irritate the skin.
If needed, wear fleece for insulation, and top it off with a waterproof jacket. When it's below freezing, wear a scarf over your mouth to warm the air you're breathing.
Cover your extremities.
Getting frostbite isn’t fun at any time but especially when you’re exercising and you may not be aware that your extremities are at risk. Make sure you are covering your feet, hands, face and head.
Practice slip prevention.
Frigid temperatures and precipitation can make for icy paths and sidewalks. Luckily there are a few things that you can do to make sure that you stay steady on your feet.
- First, check the tracks on your shoes. If they are worn down, your shoes won’t give you the traction you need.
- Second, have a plan. Think about what would happen if you fell anywhere on your route: could you get help? Map out a safer alternative.
Finally, slow down. Trying to go your normal pace when it’s icy out pushes your sense of balance.
Finally, there maybe such a thing as too cold.
When you're exercising in the cold for a prolonged amount of time, you’re at risk of thermoregulatory fatigue—which is when someone exercises in the cold and body heat is lost to the environment. This stymies the shivering response that is your body’s defense to cold and can put you at increased risk of hypothermia, according to the American Council of Sports Medicine.
Cold weather exercise precautions if…
Cold weather can cause havoc when you are managing health conditions. If you choose to exercise outdoors when it is chilly, it is good to know what additional precautions you should take. See below for suggestions about exercising with asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
...you're living with asthma.
Cold air makes it difficult to breathe because it narrows your airways, which is called bronchoconstruction. Breathing through your nose can help prevent this by warming the air before it hits the airways and lungs. Wearing a knit facemask or scarf that covers your nose and mouth will also help.
The other reason to take extra precaution if you choose to exercise outdoors if you’re living with asthma is that exercise can cause the same kind of bronchoconstruction. Here are other precautions to take to avoid flare-ups while being active when it’s cold outside, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
- Choose your activities wisely. Sports with sustained periods of running or exertion are more likely to trigger exercise-induced asthma. These include: basketball, cross-country skiing, field hockey, hockey, and soccer. Activities like biking, free downhill skiing, golfing, hiking, swimming, and walking, may be better choices—especially in the cold.
- Talk to your doctor about whether you should use your rescue inhaler 10 to 15 minutes prior to outdoor exercise.
- Move your activities indoors when outdoor temperatures dip below 10 degrees.
- Stop exercising if symptoms present themselves. If they don’t go away after taking a break, then call your doctor.
...you're living with diabetes.
Since blood sugar levels creep up when the temperature drops, you may have to test during your workouts. If this is the case, keep your hands and testing equipment warm is important since if they are cold it will affect your reading. Wear gloves and carry your strips and meter in your clothes to keep them warm. In addition, find a warm place to test.
Also, don’t forget to protect your feet by wearing the right footwear to keep them warm. After your workout, apply moisturizer to them to keep the skin healthy and inspect them for injury.
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...you're with heart disease.
“Depending on your fitness level, you should be able to exercise in temperatures 10 degrees lower than you are used to,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, senior faculty of medicine and cardiology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. However, don’t if temperatures are dip below 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
You should also avoid sudden exertion, such as lifting a heavy shovel full of snow or walking through heavy, wet snow or snow drifts.
Additional reporting by Carey Rossi