Your Guide to Cold Weather Physical Activities
Snow might be falling, but that doesn’t mean you need to take your workout routine indoors. Here’s the need-to-know behind cold weather exercise.
With most parts of the nation getting swept up in frigid temps, you may be thinking it’s time to take your exercise routine exclusively indoors. If you’re still craving fresh air, wide open spaces, and some winter sunshine on your skin, here are a few need-to-knows about exercising outside in the wintertime.
The Benefits of Cold Weather Exercise
First off, getting active in cold weather comes with a host of health benefits. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, working out in cold weather could help you shed more calories than breaking a sweat in warm weather. Researchers surmise that this is because cold weather exercise “can transform white fat, specifically belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning brown fat.” If you aren’t keen on burning fat but are hoping to do some endurance training, you’re still in luck. The same study noted that “in colder temperatures your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, you sweat less, and expend less energy, all of which means you can exercise more efficiently.”
The benefits don’t stop there. While researchers are still deciphering the various roles of the gut microbiome, science is suggesting that your gut microbes could benefit from cold temperatures. One such study found that cold exposure could shift microbial composition in a way that could help support fat burning, glucose metabolism, and a healthy body weight.
Cool Air and Inflammation
If you’re familiar with the trend of ice baths and muscle/joint relief, you may be relieved to hear you don’t have to submerge yourself to reap the benefits.
Just like during more temperate times of year, there’s something for every movement style during the wintertime. Whether you’d like to hit the slopes at the ski resort or simply take your routine walk or run outside, make your workout your own. Even a good old fashioned snowball fight can be a cardio burner, so get creative and get your blood pumping however brings you the most joy.
Prepare for the Elements
Before you sprint out your door to partake in some winter wellness, make sure you’re prepared for the elements. Here’s how you can tackle the cooler temps:
Check the weather forecast.
Before you brave the cold, the first step starts inside. Check your local weather forecast to ensure it’s temperate enough for outdoor activity. The temperature, wind chill, and humidity all play into how you plan the length of your workout and if it’s even safe to exercise outdoors on a given day. (More on that later.) If it’s precipitating or particularly icy, it might be best to skip the outdoor exposure unless you have waterproof layers and high-traction footwear.
Working out in cold weather sparks an interesting dynamic where your body dehydrates faster, yet doesn’t feel as thirsty. In fact, studies show that cold diminishes the sensation of thirst by up to 40%. This happens because the blood vessels constrict in cold weather to keep the majority of blood flow centered in your core. This “warming mechanism” can reduce a fluid-regulating hormone called arginine vasopressin (AVP) which can make you feel less thirsty. Keep in mind that even though it’s cold outside, you’re still sweating, which also contributes to fluid loss. To counteract this, try to drink 16 ounces of water for every hour you’re physically active outside.
Eat enough nutrients.
Make sure you’re giving your body the fuel it needs to crush your cold weather exercise routine. A good rule of thumb is to consume a carbohydrate-rich snack every 30-60 minutes you’re exercising. Think peanut butter and bananas, or a nutrient-dense trail mix. If you plan on exercising outside regularly, your preparation continues after your workout is complete. Try some post-workout nourishment with protein-rich foods that aid in muscle repair and recovery, like beans, chicken breast, or a protein-powered smoothie.
Protect your head, hands, and feet.
Remember in our hydration tip how we discussed the body’s warming mechanism? A key part of that process is slowing blood flow to your extremities, like your head, hands, and feet, to keep warmth at the body’s core. This means you have to ensure your extremities are extra protected from the elements with warm gloves or mittens, thick socks, a cap that covers your ears, a buff to warm your neck, and in some cases, a full-on ski mask. Try to choose accessories that are made from sweat and wetness-wicking materials like wool or polypropylene. Pro tip: size your winter sneakers ½ to 1 size up to fit thicker socks.
Invest in appropriate gear.
Whether you’re skiing in the backcountry or running in an urban environment, ensure you have the gear you need to stay safe. Cold temperatures are no joke and a waterproof jacket or warm gloves could be the deciding factors between you and hypothermia or frostbite. Evaluate what you’d like to do outside and take time to research what the proper gear is for your given activity, and always begin with a solid base layer!
Know When to Stay Indoors
Sometimes, exercising outdoors just isn’t in the cards. No one wants to experience hypothermia and frostbite, so look at your local weather report generously when deciding to take your workout outside. Keep in mind that if temperatures are below 0°F or the wind chill is below -17°F, you are putting yourself at risk for frostbite or hypothermia. You are unlikely to get frostbite if the temp is above 5°F and the wind blows at less than 25 mph, but this is reliant on wearing proper layers and the length of time you are outside.
If it’s too frigid to get outside, bring your workout indoors. From a yoga practice to bodyweight exercise, there are ample tools and apps for you to take advantage of for an at-home workout. In fact, cleaning up around the house can be a calorie-burner in and of itself with studies showing that mopping alone can burn 318 calories in an hour. A cleaner house to relax in and a workout? Not a bad trade.
Be Safe Out There
Being active outdoors in cold weather is safe for most people. If you have certain respiratory conditions, like asthma, or cardiovascular issues, check with your doctor before you step outside to ensure you are taking the appropriate precautions for your unique needs.
1 Kern, P.A., et al. (2014). [Effects of temperature and seasons on subcutaneous white adipose tissue]. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. PubMed.gov
2 The wonders of winter workouts. (2018). Harvard Health. health.harvard.edu
3 [Gut microbes and fat loss in cold temperatures]. (2015). Cell Press. ScienceDaily
4 [Cold weather and exercise]. (updated Jan. 2023). Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. froedtert.com
5 Cronkleton, E. (2022). [Calories burned during housework]. Healthline. healthline.com