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Working Out in the Cold

Cold weather doesn't have to put a freeze on your outdoor exercise program. If you take precautions, you can still work out when the weather turns chilly.

Wear the right clothing

Clothing is critical, says the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Although a double-thick cotton sweatshirt may seem like a good choice, it doesn't insulate nearly as well as synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene.

Don't overdress. You can overheat even in below-freezing temperatures. If you dress too warmly, you'll sweat a lot. Then, when cold winds hit, perspiration will rapidly evaporate, chilling you. You want to limit perspiration and keep it away from both your skin and the outside air.

Layering is key

The ACSM recommends that you wear a synthetic material like polypropylene against your skin. This will allow the sweat to pass through the fabric away from your body. The second layer should be wool, polyester, or fleece, which provides primary insulation. The third layer should be chosen for its ability to keep the cold air, wind, and rain out--something lightweight and artificial.

Layering also helps regulate your temperature. If you get too warm, you can strip off a layer.

Heads up

You can lose a tremendous amount of heat through your uncovered head, so wear a hat, cap or hood, the ACSM says.

Your feet get cold first. Wear appropriate boots or shoes, insulate them with warm socks and keep them dry.

Because of the large surface area to volume, your hands are also more susceptible to cold. Gloves or mittens should be worn before the hands become cold. Choose mittens over gloves, because the fingers can warm each other and the mitten decreases the exposed surface area.

Don't forget fluids

If you can see your breath, you're seeing moisture leave your body. So drink plenty of fluids, particularly if the air is cold and dry, says the ACSM. Drink water before you go out, and bring some with you. But don't drink alcohol -- it makes you lose heat.

Don't overdo it

Cold is a stress on the body, and so is exercise. Together they may be too much for someone not in optimal health. Talk to your health care provider before you start a winter exercise program.

People who have diabetes, who take certain medications or who are older adults are at greater risk that their body temperature will drop in cold weather.

Other cold-weather tips

  • Warming up before exercising is always important, but even more so when it gets cold.

  • If the weather is particularly cold, it's probably too cold for you to exercise outdoors. If you do have to go out in extreme cold, cover all exposed skin to prevent frostbite.

  • Cold air doesn't damage the lungs. Even very cold air is warmed to body temperature by the time it hits the lungs. But for some people with asthma, cold air can trigger an attack.