As we round the bend into a yet another winter season, I thought I’d take some time to discuss how to safely exercise in colder temperatures.
Why? Because most discussions around exercise safety focus on the perils of overheating.
But the return of frigid air may pose a bigger threat than you realize…
Exercise dulls cold perception
Your body has many mechanisms for modulating its temperature—shivering, sweating, and dilation and constriction of blood vessels are just a few.
This thermoregulation relies on sensors located in the body, which trigger responses to hot or cold surroundings. But cold weather exercise can throw a little wrench in the works here…
For one thing, your muscles generate heat—but that heat is lost more easily when temperatures are low. Plus, research also shows that shivering (to generate more heat) kicks in later when you’re exercising than it does when you’re at rest. The sensation of skin temperature is lower, too—likely because of natural painkillers released by the brain during workouts (a phenomenon known as the “runner’s high”).
All of which create a perfect storm for hypothermia to set in… that is, if you’re not careful.
So, to explore this impact, Japanese researchers monitored skin temperature, core body temperature, skin sensation, and cold perception—along with factors like heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen uptake—in a group of healthy young men.
They measured subjects at rest and during low-intensity exercise in a cold-water tank. And their findings serve as a timely warning to outdoor exercisers and winter sports enthusiasts alike…
How to stay active—but safe—in frigid temps
Even though the exercise wasn’t intense enough to trigger the “runner’s high,” subjects still saw reductions in perception of core body temperature with exercise in the cold. Meaning that the exercisers couldn’t tell how cold they actually were.
This may be a good thing when you’re only dealing with moderately chilly temperatures. But especially for older exercisers—or people of any age who enjoy activities like skiing or hiking in the snow—it’s not hard to see how these dulled perceptions could quickly turn dangerous.
The natural conclusion here might be to move your workouts indoors for the winter. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. After all, a little daily dose of fresh air and sunshine can make a world of difference to your day.
So, let’s go over a few common-sense, cold weather precautions instead…
- Work out during peak sunshine. The lunchtime hour is when the sun is highest—which means it’s also going to be the warmest part of the day.
- Dress appropriately. This goes without saying, but make sure you’re bundled up. Layering is a good idea if you’re going to be breaking a sweat.
- Warm up first. This gets your muscles ready to brave the cold, and importantly, reduces the strain on your heart.
- Stay hydrated. If you’re sweating, you still need to be drinking water, no matter what the thermometer says.
Finally, if it’s an especially cold, blustery, or frigid day, I do encourage you to find a more temperate place to work out—whether it’s a gym, a mall, or your own living room. And if you’re craving sunshine, search for a spot with natural light. Because warmer days will be back again eventually. Until then, we just have to find ways to get creative in (or out of) the cold.
“You’re cooler than you think! Hypothermia may go unnoticed when exercising in the cold.” Science Daily, 08/19/2021. (sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/08/210819102728.htm)