As they say in Game of Thrones, “winter is coming.” And while we do not have to face the frozen army of the dead, we do have to deal with shorter days, cold temperatures, sleet, ice, and snow.
The good news is that working out in the winter doesn’t entirely have to suck. With proper preparation and strategic investments, most of us can reap the benefits of exercise indoors and outdoors–even in the winter.
Exercise outdoors in the winter? Using mindfulness while outdoors in winter can still be “magical.” Paying attention to the sun streaming through the trees, sparkling of snow and ice, the splashes of color in the midst of browns and grays, etc. Grant it, you are not going to see the array of fall colors, summer flowers, or spring blossoms…
Still, getting outdoors by itself can be therapeutic as I review in my article “The Amazing Health Benefits of Outdoor Environments.” Natural light exposure, fresh air, the visual stimulation, all can work together to improve mood, sleep, reduce depression symptoms, promote normalization of stress hormones, and promote positive immune system activity (I cover the research findings in more depth in the linked article).
Get a treadmill or gym membership…
Resistance training for most of us is weather-neutral, whether we work out at home or in the gym. Cardio however can be an issue as winter approaches.
Treadmills, ellipticals, and exercise bikes are great options to have at home. They enable exercise regardless of a commercial gym’s schedule, save you time from commuting to a gym, and can be used regardless of the weather.
However, not everyone has room for such equipment. Many people have difficulty mustering the motivation to use these options even when they do own a piece of cardio equipment.
Running several hundred to several thousands of dollars, people rightfully fear their exercise equipment transforming into an expensive and less-than-attractive clothes rack.
I personally love having a treadmill. With a TV in front or an iPad with a video playing, I combine self-entertainment and exercise. Having access to indoor equipment either at home or at the gym is extremely helpful when the weather gets messy–in any season!
However, the aesthetics of the environment are just not the same as getting outdoors in natural light and fresh air. The good news is by following some practical tips, outdoor exercise can be a year-round option for many, even in arctic provinces like…Pennsylvania 😉
Tips for exercising outdoors in the winter
Some tips for safely exercising outside in the cold are available from Cedric Bryant (2018) as posted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). These include:
Risks for cardiac events increase in middle-age and even more rapidly in persons over 65. Risks are highest for those with underlying cardiac disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Cold air causes blood vessel constriction, which can lead to spikes in blood pressure, cardiac demands, and thereby, lead to cardiac events such as heart attacks.
Persons with such conditions or of more advanced age may want to just play it safe and exercise indoors when it gets cold.
If you are in your middle age or later years, or have underlying cardiac disease, diabetes, and/ or obesity and still choose to take the risk of exercising outdoors, Bryant (2018) recommends that you especially avoid exercising outdoors when the windchill reaches -20 degrees F. (-29 C).
Get ready to strip! Layers that is!
Wear layers that can be peeled away so as to avoid excess sweating.
Excess sweating can lead to subsequent rapid chilling. If you get too cold you can always add the layers back on. Under Armour offers a lot of great options specifically for exercising in cold weather designed to wick away moisture.
Shine people shine!
If exercising in the dark, which seems to happen at 1 pm in Pennsylvania currently, consider wearing reflective vests and gear so that cars can see you–safety is essential!!! A review of options can be found here.
Cover up your head, such as with ear muffs/ or a beanie. As noted by Bryant (2018), 20% of your body heat is lost from an uncovered head.
Clearly, you want good shoes with good tread when exercising outside. If conditions are icy, you are best exercising indoors. Some tips on choosing winter shoes can be found here.
A single injury can set your fitness routine backward substantially. There are plenty of indoor bodyweight circuit options, walking in place, or–just breaking down and getting the treadmill and exercise bike already. Its nice to have when the weather gets messy regardless of the season!
Workout at your current ability level
If you are new to exercise or have not been doing consistent cardiovascular exercise over the past six months, starting with just 10 to 20 minutes of light walking for 3 to 5 days per week is a good starting target.
From there, increase duration only by 10% each week. It’s not about where you think you should be, it’s about being honest and meeting yourself where you are right now. You can always advance as you build consistency, habit, and routine–allowing your body to adapt and adjust.
Intervals can be added in when you are able to achieve 20 minutes of continuous consistent cardiovascular activity (such as walking) 3 or more times per week. Intervals don’t have to be too intense…in fact, they should NOT be if you are just adding them into your routine.
A good rule for intervals when starting out is to walk or jog at a pace that would make conversation somewhat challenging yet still possible for the duration of the interval. Performing intervals at a level where you are gasping for breath is unnecessary for cardiovascular improvements.
Not only that, such intervals can be dangerous if you have not first gradually built your fitness levels up with lower intensity intervals–and even MORE so if you are sucking in cold air!!!!
A good beginner interval ratio is 30 seconds work, 1 minute, and 30 seconds rest. From there you can slowly progress the length of the interval little by little while cutting the rest back until you achieve a 1:1 work to rest ratio (such as a 1-minute interval followed by a lighter 1 minute rest period).
Eat light before exercising outdoors in the cold
Byrant (2018) cautions against exercising in the cold after a heavy meal. Why?
We already discussed how cold air can stimulate the contraction of blood vessels, leading to a reduction of blood flow to the heart. If blood is being diverted to the digestive tract due to a heavy meal, the combination of blood diversion and blood vessel contraction in the cold weather can add yet more stress to the heart.
Safety first: exercise is most helpful when it doesn’t kill you
Dizziness, shortness of breath, a pounding or sudden racing heart rate are good indications to stop the activity and immediately get indoors (Byrant, 2018). Heart attack signs and symptoms according to the CDC (2021) include:
- Chest pain, fullness, or pressure typically in the center or left side of the chest
- Pain in the jaw, neck, or back
- Pain in one or both arms or shoulders
- Shortness of breath
Unexplained fatigue, nausea, or vomiting (which may be more common for women experiencing heart attacks).
Exercising in winter, including cardio, does not have to suck. If you take proper precautions, exercising outdoors for your cardio sessions may be an option as well.
If you have concerns or pre-existing conditions, please talk with your doctor/ medical provider before beginning a program. Be on the lookout for symptoms that may indicate cardiac trouble, which is a greater risk factor when exercising in the cold.
If you want to play it as safe as possible, hey, many of us use our treadmills and exercise bikes. Find the right podcast, audiobook, or television series, and the mundane can become a routine habit before you know it.
Just don’t overdo it, especially if starting out. An exercise program that builds on your current level is better than an extreme burst and die off, figuratively and literally!
Live well, move more, and feel great, all year long!!!!
Byrant, C. X. (2019). Keeping cold-weather physical activity safe. Retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/6902/keeping-cold-weather-physical-activity-safe/
CDC. (2021). Heart attack symptoms, risk, and recovery. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm