What Are the Health Risks of Exercising Outside in Winter?

By Nathan Blake |1/4/17
Updated | 10/27/17

Who doesn’t love this time of year? Leaves are changing color, the breeze smells like campfire, and pretty much everything comes in “pumpkin spice” (chicken sausage, anyone?). In just a few months, you’ll be making yet another list of New Year’s resolutions.

Last year, 41% of Americans said they wanted to “live a healthier lifestyle,” while an additional 39% wanted to “lose weight.” And let’s be honest—most of us can sympathize. 40% of U.S. adults are considered obese, a record high.

But gym memberships aren’t getting any cheaper. Rising costs have inspired health buffs to develop fitness routines requiring little or no cost such as bodyweight exercises, yoga, and dancing, or incorporate old standbys like running and cycling.

What most people don’t realize is that the physical cost of cold-weather exercise can mean devastating heart and lung damage. In fact, numerous studies show that heart attack rates tend to spike in colder months, especially December and January.

Those of you who choose to brave the cold this fall and winter should be aware of the potential benefits—and dangers—that lie ahead.

Benefits of Cold Weather Exercise

It’s a myth (more like a half-truth) that chilly weather means greater weight loss. Unless you’re noticeably shivering and expending more energy than usual, your winter workout won’t burn more calories than usual.

That’s not to say athletes should hibernate until spring.

Want to improve your mood? Exercise helps combat the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression affecting 20% of Americans. Additionally, more sunlight exposure increases endorphin levels, putting the “sunny” in “sunny disposition.”

Some research even suggests that 45 minutes of running in cold weather can reduce flu-risk during the winter months by as much as 20-30%.

You may be able to up the intensity of your workouts in the cold, too, since hot weather has been shown to negatively impact physical performance. Factor in the lack of humidity and the invigorating wind chill, and all of a sudden colder climes don’t seem so bad for training.

But as with life in general, moderation is key.

Now for the Dangers (and How to Prevent Them)

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re capable of doing the same activities in winter as you could in summer without a hitch. If you’re in excellent health, you probably won’t experience any major issues exercising outside this winter—barring accidents, of course.

However, if you have a history of heart, lung, or circulation issues, you’re putting yourself at risk for increased discomfort, injury, and even death.

Here’s what you need to be on the lookout for if you want to stay well and fit this winter.

Muscle TearsWhen temperatures drop, our bodies overcompensate to perform tasks that would be easier in milder weather. Our muscles and tendons lose more heat, which causes them to tighten up and become less flexible. This leads to muscle soreness or damage like strains and tears.

What You Can DoTake time to warm-up properly before exercising, but save the stretches for your post-routine cool-down. Ease into your workout with some light cardio instead. Brisk walking, for instance, is great for raising your core temperature and increasing blood and oxygen circulation. Common problem areas include your hamstrings, chest, shoulders, and quadriceps. Show them some extra love!

Asthma: Ever hear of exercise-induced asthma? Coughing, wheezing, chest-tightness, shortness of breath, excessive fatigue. Winter athletes frequently report these symptoms even though they may never experience them in other seasons. Cold, dry air and exercise both aggravate asthma individually. Combined, they’re downright dangerous.

What You Can Do: Cover your mouth with a mask or scarf to warm the air you breathe. If you use an inhaler, use it 15-30 minutes before exercise to open your airways, and carry it on your person at all times. You can also drink extra water, which thins the mucus in your lungs and helps your body move more efficiently.

Heart Attack: Cold temperatures can cause vasoconstriction, or narrowing of your blood vessels. As these passageways constrict, blood pressure rises, which reduces oxygen supply and blood flow to your heart. The result is your heart works harder than it would under normal circumstances. People with heart conditions are inviting additional cardiovascular strain that may result in angina or, potentially, a full blown heart attack.

What You Can DoPeople with a history of high blood pressure and/or heart disease should consult a doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Begin physical activity slowly, and give your body a break every 15-20 minutes. If you begin to feel chest pain, or pain that radiates down your left arm, call 911 immediately or visit the nearest emergency room.

Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the body’s skin and underlying tissues begin to freeze. As blood flow slows, ice crystals form inside your cells, killing them in the process. People with frostbite will immediately notice numbness and skin discoloration in localized area(s). Left untreated, the resulting skin tissue death can result in gangrene and amputation.

What You Can Do: Limit your exposure to cold, windy, wet weather. Keep an eye out for signs of frostbite like red or pale prickling skin, and stay dry (wet clothes increase heat loss). Dress in layers; aim for clothing that is comfortable, loose, and light; and make sure your outer layer is both windproof and waterproof. If you do notice signs of frostbite, don’t rub or aggravate the frostbitten area. Instead, find shelter as soon as possible, and treat the affected area using either warm—not hot—water or body heat.

Hypothermia: Prolonged exposure to cold weather causes the body to lose heat through the skin and lungs faster than it can be produced. A dramatic drop in body temperature (generally recognized when core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit) slows brain function, heart rate, and breathing. Soon, confusion, fatigue, and organ failure set in.

What You Can Do: Layer up, and wear a hat, scarf, and mittens to conserve body heat. Stay dry, being especially mindful of your feet and hands. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, both of which stimulate heat loss. Seek medical attention immediately if you notice any symptoms of hypothermia. In the meantime, remove any wet clothing and wrap yourself warmly in a blanket or other covering. However, do not immerse yourself in hot water. This can lead to shock.

Even though the above scenarios may sound dire, it never hurts to be prepared when it comes to your health. Stay warm this winter, but enjoy the chill. Your body will thank you come spring.

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