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Exercising Safely in Cold Weather

Exercising outside can be a pleasurable activity all year around. But without proper attire, some preparation, and certain safety measures, exercising in cold weather can be uncomfortable and even hazardous. For this reason, it’s important to understand how cold can affect the body and how you can protect yourself from weather-related health problems.

Understanding How the Body Reacts to Cold

Within certain limits, the body is designed to adapt in cold temperatures. For example, muscles contract, which causes shivering, to distribute heat when you get cold. In very cold temperatures or prolonged exposure to cold, body temperature drops quickly and blood vessels at the surface of the skin on the face / head, arms, and legs begin contracting and pushing blood toward the trunk (or core) — a physiologic process that prevents additional heat loss through the skin and protects the vital organs from getting too cold. As soon as you warm up again, blood begins flowing back to your limbs.But when blood flow to extremities is significantly limited, fluids in tissues of the ears, cheeks, nose, chin, hands, and feet can freeze (frostbite). Severe frostbite can permanently damage skin, tissue, nerves, muscle, and bone.2

To exercise safely and comfortably in cold weather:

  • Dress in layers
    • Begin with a thin synthetic fabric layer that wicks moisture away from your body (propylene works well); avoid cotton garments, which absorb sweat, stay wet against your skin, and prevent you from retaining heat
    • Place a wool or fleece garment on top of the synthetic layer for insulation; the temperature, wind, and your height and body type* will dictate how many layers you need
    • Cover the inner layers with a waterproof, wind-blocking, breathable shell; avoid down-filled garments that absorb moisture
    • Avoid overdressing to prevent getting too warm, sweating, cooling down, and getting chilled
  • Wear reflective clothing
    • Reflective clothing helps motorists see you better especially on dark, cloudy days, at dawn, and at dusk
  • Wear a face mask
    • In addition to protecting the skin on your face, a fleece-lined mask will help warm the air you breathe
  • Wear a hat or headband that covers your ears
    • Ears are among the first body parts to feel the sting of being too cold
  • Wear a helmet and protective goggles when skiing, snowboarding, sledding, ice skating, and snowmobiling
    • Of the 600,000 ski- and snowboarding-related injuries each year in North America, 20% are head injuries, many of which are severe enough to cause concussion or unconciousness3,4
    • Skiers and snowboarders with head injuries account for approximately 29% of all injuries needing hospital admission5
  • Wear insulating gloves and socks
    • Use thin synthetic-fiber gloves and socks inside wool or fleece insulating gloves and socks to wick away moisture and ensure your hands and feet stay warm
  • Use chemical hand and feet warmers
    • If you will be outside for an extended period on very cold days, tuck hand and feet warmers in your gloves, mittens, and boots for extra warmth; do not place the warmers directly against your skin and use them only in unventilated spaces - the more they are exposed to cold air, the hotter they get. Chemical warmers can burn you if they get too hot and are next to your skin
  • Wear shoes with soles that grip and that are a half or full size larger
    • Nonskid soles can help prevent slips and falls; avoid leather soles altogether
    • Shoes that are too tight can cut off blood flow to your toes. Wearing shoes a half or full size larger allows room for thick thermal or double-layer socks without cutting off blood supply
  • Apply sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of 30 and ultraviolet (UV) ray protection
    • Although the sun’s rays are strongest in the summer, direct or reflected UV rays can damage skin throughout the year
    • Remember that even 1 sunburn can double your odds for skin cancer6
  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses that block as close to 100% of UVA/UVB rays as possible
    • UV rays from the sun and sun glare off ice and snow can damage your eyes7
  • Apply a lubricating lip balm with and SPF of 30 or higher
    • Lip balm can guard against chapping and sunburn
  • Drink water before and after exercising
    • Even if you do not feel thirsty in cold weather, you can be dehydrated from exercising
  • Warm up slowly to prevent muscle cramps
    • Walk or run at least 5 minutes at a slow or moderate pace to warm up your muscles
  • Avoid ice
    • Slips and falls are among the most common reasons people visit emergency rooms during the winter8
    • Watch the road or sidewalk in front of you when you walk or run
    • Avoid exercising outside on icy days
  • Avoid exercising outside in extreme cold
    • Because wind chills can make exercising outdoors unsafe even if you dress warmly, avoid exercising outside if the temperature drops below 0° F (or -17.8° C)
  • Talk with your doctor if you have a health problem that cold might aggravate, including:
    • Asthma, heart problems, peripheral artery disease, and Raynaud’s disease. He or she might recommend that you exercise indoors until milder temperatures return

In addition to getting fresh air, exercising outside during the winter can expose you to sunlight that helps guard against seasonal affective disorder (or SAD).9 Getting more sunshine also means getting more vitamin D, which is important for the health of your bones and immune system. Although study results are inconsistent, some researchers also believe that exercising outside in the cold weather can boost metabolism,10 helping burn more fat compared with exercising in moderate temperatures.


As with all activity and exercise,
many people who exercise in the cold
say it can be invigorating, help brighten your mood,11
calm you,12 and ensure you get a good night’s sleep!13


*Taller people usually get colder than shorter people because they have more surface area from which to lose heat. In addition, people with more fat under the skin (subcutaneous fat) rather than abdominal (visceral) fat tend to be warmer than leaner people because subcutaneous fat helps insulate the body.



1. Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. Harvard Newsletter. January 2010. Out in the cold. Accessed February 1, 2014. Accessed January 27, 2014.
2. Kiss TL. Critical care for frostbite. Crit Care Nurs Clin N Am. 2012;24:581-591.
3. Mueller BA, Cummings P, Rivara FP, et al. Injuries of the head, face, and neck in relation to ski helmet use. Epidemiol. 2008;19:270–276.
4.Macnab AJ, Cadman RE, Gagnon F. Demographics of alpine skiing and snowboarding injury: Lessons for prevention programs. Inj Prev. 1996;2:286-289.
5. Levy AS, Hawkes AP, Hemminger LM, et al. An analysis of head injuries among skiers and snowboarders. J Trauma. 2002;53:695-704.
6. Skin Cancer Foundation. Facts about sunburn and skin cancer. Accessed January 27, 2014.
7. Golu A, Gheorghişor I, Bălăşoiu AT, Baltă F, Osiac E, Mogoantă L, Bold A. The effect of ultraviolet radiation on the cornea - experimental study. Rom J Morphol Embryol. 2013;54(4):1115-1120.
8.  Watson DS, Shields BJ, Smith GA. Snow shovel-related injuries and medical emergencies treated in US EDs, 1990 to 2006. Amer J  Emerg Med. 2010;29:11-17.
9. Miller AL. Epidemiology, etiology, and natural treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Alt Med Rev. 2005;10(1):5-13.
10. Jett DM, Adams KJ, Stamford BA. Cold exposure and exercise metabolism. Sports Med. 2006;36(8):643-656.
11. Villaverde Gutiérrez C etal. Influence of exercise on mood in postmenopausal women. J Clin Nurs. 2012;21(7-8):923-928.
12. Asmundson GJ, Fetzner MG, Deboer LB, Powers MB, Otto MW, Smits JA. Let's get physical: a contemporary review of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for anxiety and its disorders. Depress Anxiety. 2013;30(4):362-373.
13. Baron KG, Reid KJ, Zee PC. Exercise to improve sleep in insomnia: exploration of the bidirectional effects. J Clin Sleep Med. 2013;9(8):819-824.