Winter Workout Safety Tips

Depending on where you live, weather conditions can vary greatly throughout the year. If you enjoy exercising outdoors, the different seasons certainly bring their share of joys and sorrows. Who wouldn’t enjoy walking, running, or biking on a warm summer’s night, a fall afternoon, during a sunny spring day, or even amid the tranquility of an early winter morning?

For many of us, we are entering the coolest—okay coldest—time of the year. If you enjoy exercising outside, then the bitter cold of winter can be more than just an inconvenience. And no, the alternative doesn't have to mean hibernating for a few months, only to resurface with the buttercups in spring. By taking a few special precautions, and monitoring winter weather and conditions, it can be completely safe—and even enjoyable—to work out in the wintry outdoors.

Chances are you've heard the nightmarish stories of some climbers battling Mt. Everest or someone missing in the forest and their struggle with hypothermia. But it is important to know that hypothermia can happen outside of mountain ranges and national forests. It awaits every ill-prepared outdoor exerciser who dares to venture out when temperatures and conditions shout to us to stay inside.

Hypothermia, basically, is dangerously-low body temperature—below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a condition that occurs when your body loses more heat than it can generate in return. It is typically caused by extended exposure to the cold and can be brought on by being outside in winter without enough protective clothing or wearing wet (even sweaty) clothing in windy or cold weather.

When exercising outdoors in the winter, you should closely monitor your body and be aware if you are having any of the following symptoms:
  • Drowsiness
  • Weakness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Pale, cold skin
  • Confusion
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Slowed breathing or slowed heart rate
Don’t wait until you see all seven! When you recognize any of the above, it is time to go inside right away. Better yet, let’s avoid all of this. Here are some tips when exercising outside in the winter to avoid hypothermia:
  • Of course, dress appropriately for cold weather. In a nutshell: layer, layer, layer.
  • Stay close to home. If you begin getting too cold, you can get back quickly.
  • Carry a cell phone in case of emergency.
  • Let friends and family know what you are doing, where you'll be going, and when you should be back.
Although following the tips above will keep you exercising safely through most winter days, it can still be unsafe sometimes—no matter what you are wearing or how conditioned you may be. It's best to stay indoors when the outdoors resembles these conditions:
  • Extremely cold temperatures with high winds. Wind takes heat away from your body more rapidly, making it more difficult for your body to generate the heat it needs already in very cold temperatures.
  • Extremely cold temperatures with rain. If your body gets cold—and wet—you're setting the stage for hypothermia to develop.
  • Ice. Icy roads and sidewalks are unsafe from an injury standpoint as they increase your chances of slips and falls.
Remember that completing a workout should not be a matter of life and death—no matter how committed you are. Take it indoors and use your favorite piece of cardio equipment, walk in the mall, or do an exercise video. Being inside doesn’t have to be forever and you can do it if your safety depends on it.

Bear in mind that if you layer up, watch the forecast, and take some general safety precautions, you'll be pretty safe during about 95 percent of your winter workouts. For the other five percent of the time, enjoy the great indoors!