Your Guide to Working Out in the Cold: Expert Winter Workout Tips

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

When the temperature starts to drop and the days get shorter, it can be tempting to curl up on the couch and hibernate until spring. But there’s no reason to stop exercising just because it’s cold outside. In fact, working out in the cold can have some amazing health benefits!

If you’re looking for ways to stay active in winter, here are some expert tips to spice up your winter workouts and stay safe when working out in the cold.

Benefits and potential risks of winter workouts

Staying active in winter can support your immune system and help you beat the winter blues — even better if you choose to exercise outside to get some fresh air and your dose of vitamin D.

But winter workouts may even offer benefits that summer exercise can’t — for instance, cold temperatures may increase your stamina. Cool environments enable you to exercise more effectively during longer workouts, especially doing cardio, since your body can better control its temperature and avoid overheating.

Studies have also shown that exercising in cold weather can burn more calories compared to warm weather workouts. Lower temperatures help turn plentiful white fat into calorie-burning brown fat, so going for a run or a brisk walk in the cold can help you maintain a healthy weight.

But while exercising outside in the winter can be perfectly safe, you need to be aware of the potential risks of cold weather workouts.

For example, lower temperatures put a lot of stress on your cardiovascular system — your arteries and veins become narrower and your blood becomes thicker, making your heart work much harder to ensure proper blood circulation.

Since your heart rate naturally goes up during exercise, working out in the cold can be even harder on your heart and can increase your risk of a heart attack. Make sure to take it slow and have frequent breaks when exercising in winter, especially if you have underlying conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

Cold, dry air can also irritate your airways and trigger an asthma attack. Always have your inhaler on hand in cold weather and consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

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How does exercising in the cold affect your body?

When you’re exercising in lower temperatures, your body releases heat quicker than it can produce it, so it needs to work harder to keep you warm. If you’re not wearing the right clothes and eating enough before taking your outdoor workout, you can become more susceptible to hypothermia, injuries, and tissue damage.

If you have a chronic health condition that can be affected by cold weather, such as asthma, diabetes, heart problems, or Raynaud's disease, talk to your doctor about what types of winter exercises are safe for you and under what conditions.

How to stay safe when working out in the cold

These simple tips can help you exercise safely and comfortably in low temperatures. If you're working out in the cold, pay close attention to how you're feeling to avoid injuries or severe complications like frostbite.

Wear several layers

Layering is crucial for winter workouts; it helps you to regulate your rising body temperature — you can remove a few items when you start feeling hot and put them back on when you get a bit chilly.

Your base layer should be made of moisture-wicking material like lightweight polyester or polypropylene that draws the sweat away from your skin and allows it to evaporate. The second layer is the insulating layer, which should be made of wool or polyester fleece. And the third, outer layer should be wind- and rain-proof. Unless it’s raining, snowing, or extremely windy, it's best to remove this third layer before exercising as it can prevent proper sweat evaporation. You can always put it back on during your breaks.

Do your warm-ups

Cold weather puts your muscles at a greater risk of strains and injuries, so make sure to properly warm up before your winter workout. Depending on the type of exercise, a dynamic warm-up may be the best option for you. Always include low-intensity exercises that imitate the activity you're about to do — lunges and squats, arm swings, and core activation exercises should be part of your warm-up routine if you're a runner, for example.

Keep your head, hands, and feet warm

Your fingers, toes, nose, and ears are most affected by cold temperatures because your body redirects the blood flow away from your extremities and to your vital organs to keep them warm.

To keep them from freezing and protect them from frostbite, wear a hat or headband and gloves — you can always take them off if you get too warm. Thick socks are also a must.

Many people believe that you lose a lot of heat through your head, but it’s not true. Your head can get pretty sweaty though, so keeping it covered is a must when working out in the cold. But wearing your favorite wool hat may not always be the best option, depending on the type of exercise you do — for example, running a few miles in a thick hat can make you feel too hot and sweat too much. Instead, you can get a special hat made of moisture-wicking material to keep your head dry and warm.

A person tying the shoes for winter workouts

Get the right footwear

Of course, the right footwear largely depends on your exercise, but in general, your shoes should keep your feet dry and warm, as well as have a good grip on a slippery surface. If you’re a runner, your normal running shoes will work just fine if the sidewalks and tracks are free of ice and snow. But things can become a little more challenging if there is ice along your route — wear cleats or grips that are designed specifically for these kinds of conditions over your shoes.

Stay hydrated

While you may not feel as thirsty, you still lose a lot of fluids through sweat and breathing when you’re working out in the cold, so you need to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

If you plan to exercise for 90 minutes or more, alternate between drinking plain water and a sports drink with electrolytes. But it's crucial not to overdo it. Drinking too much — more than 800 ml to 1 liter of water every hour — can lead to a dangerous condition known as hyponatremia (or water intoxication) in which your body is overhydrated and pushes fluids out of the blood and into tissue cells.

Avoid certain weather conditions

Despite the benefits of fresh air, some weather conditions increase the risk of injuries. Check the forecast before heading outside. Temperature, wind, and humidity, as well as the amount of time you'll spend outside, are all important things to consider when planning a winter workout. Wind and cold make up the wind chill, a common element in winter weather forecasts.

Even while wearing warm clothes, exercising outdoors might be dangerous due to wind chill extremes.

During adverse weather, consider cutting your outside workout short or skipping it altogether, and know when it’s time to head inside and warm up. In case something should go wrong, be sure to let someone know your exercise route and your anticipated return time.

Learn the early signs of frostbite and hypothermia

Exercising in the cold can put you at risk of hypothermia, a potentially dangerous condition that happens when your body is exposed to cold, damp weather for a long time and can't produce enough energy to keep itself warm. In case of hypothermia, your temperature drops below 95 F (35 C). Other symptoms can include:

  • Shivering
  • Cold feet and hands
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Slowed reactions

If you notice signs of hypothermia, move out of the cold, change into warm, dry clothes, and sip on a hot, non-alcoholic drink to slowly get your body temperature up. Seek immediate medical help if your symptoms aren’t improving.

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Frostbite usually affects the areas of your body that are exposed to the cold, such as your fingers, cheeks, nose, and ears, and can occur in less than thirty minutes. Early signs of frostbite are:

  • Numbness
  • Stinging
  • Red, blueish, or purplish skin
  • Hard and waxy-looking skin
  • Stiffness

Frostbite can cause permanent damage to your skin, nerves, and tissue. If you suspect frostbite, immediately get out of the cold and slowly warm up the affected area — but avoid rubbing it as it can damage your skin. Seek emergency care if numbness doesn't go away.

4 Winter outdoor exercise ideas

Winter is a great time to get outside and get creative with your exercise routine. Here are 4 winter outdoor exercises that will help you stay healthy and active during the cold season.

1. Nordic walking

Nordic walking — a walking technique that uses poles — can be a fun, social activity, but it also gives your heart and muscles a vigorous workout. Walking with poles engages all of the muscles of your upper body. Because of that Nordic walking burns more calories than regular walking — some estimates range from 18 percent to as much as 67 percent more! Another benefit of using the poles is that they make you much more stable because you have more ground contact points and you’re not relying on your two feet alone.

Two people working out in the cold, snowy forest

Nordic walking is also believed to lower bad cholesterol, build endurance, and improve flexibility. Plus, it’s a great option for people with joint pain as it doesn’t put as much pressure on your joints as other winter sports.

2. Running

Walking and running are the easiest ways to stay active during the cold winter months because they don't require a lot of special equipment. As long as it's not too cold, you can pretty much just put on your regular running shoes and get going.

Running is an amazing exercise for your heart — it can improve your blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and over time can help your heart pump blood more efficiently. Running also helps you lose weight and releases endorphins, so it can also help you beat the winter blues. Just be extra careful on a slippery sidewalk: snow and ice can cause injuries if you're not paying attention.

3. Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiing is an excellent way to enjoy winter while getting in some intense cardio and strengthening your core muscles. Brisk skiing can get your blood pumping and improve your heart health and endurance. This low-impact exercise is easy on the joints, yet uses a lot of your muscles all over your body — using poles works your shoulders and triceps while activating your core and leg muscles. It improves your balance and can give you a healthy boost of vitamin D, too.

As with many other exercises, it's important to begin slowly and do your warm-ups. Cross-country skiing also requires a lot of dynamic stretching beforehand, especially of the core muscles to avoid shoulder and low back pain. Proper posture during skiing is also essential so that you don’t injure or strain yourself.

4. Ice skating

Ice skating has various well-being and health benefits, in addition to being a lot of fun! Trying to stay upright on the ice engages nearly every muscle group in your body — especially leg and abdominal muscles — and improves coordination and joint flexibility. It’s also beneficial for your cardiovascular health as it gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping. Plus, it doesn’t feel like you're working out!

Wrapping up

Staying active during the winter months is easier than you think. There’re many creative ways to spice up your winter workouts and get you moving — and exercising at lower temperatures can even have some amazing health benefits! Just remember to follow simple safety tips, stay warm and hydrated, and consult your doctor before working out in the cold.

January 18, 2023