It's snowy. It's cold. It's windy. And in the past three days, you've eaten your weight in holiday cookie dough (or maybe that's just me). Clearly, between the extra food and the stress of visiting relatives, right now you need your exercise routine more than ever. But the snow, cold, and wind don't have to mean you have to head to the gym and fight the hordes waiting for the next available treadmill, either.
As one environmental physiologist once said, "Man in the cold is not necessarily a cold man." In other words: Suck it up, cupcake, and get out the door. With proper preparation, clothing, and common sense, there's really no place on Earth where it's so cold that you absolutely must forsake your outdoor exercise routine. "If you have the right gear, you can do anything you want in the cold," says John Castellani, a research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and an expert on cold injuries and exercise.
"Let's take a day like today," he says. (As we spoke, a winter snowstorm was bearing down on both our neighborhoods--in Brooklyn, N.Y., and southern Massachusetts--and temperatures were in the 20s and low 30s.) For everyday exercisers, "the hypothermia risk is fairly low," Castellani says. The body is more apt to lose heat when it's chilly and also wet--say, 40 degrees and very rainy. Frostbite is more of a worry, especially adding in the wind chill, he says. Luckily there's a frostbite danger zone chart you can use to gauge whether you might be at risk. Don't forget that if you're moving quickly, like on skis or a bike, you're going to get more of a wind than if you're on your own two feet.
The solution to cold-related discomfort is to bundle up. But do it the right way. "The layer of clothing closest to your skin shouldn't be tight and should be made of one of those new fibers that conducts moisture away from the skin," like polypropylene, says Delia Roberts, a sports medicine researcher at Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia. (She knows whereof she speaks: She was calling from the remote hills of British Columbia, where she was teaching fitness and injury prevention to heli-skiing guides. The temperature was minus 22 degrees.)
The second, or middle, layer of clothing acts as insulation; wool and synthetics are both good. Finally, the outer layer should be wind- or waterproofed, to keep out the elements. Be sure to cover your hands, if needed (Roberts likes thin, silver-thread gloves under windproof mittens), and also your head. While it's a myth that you lose 60 percent of your body's heat through your head, it's often the only area left exposed, says Castellani, so you will get cold if you don't cover up.
When you start out, you should be slightly cool, so that you won't get sweaty and overheated once you get going. If it's cold enough, you'll probably notice that your performance will suffer; research has shown that the ideal temperature for running is about 51 or 52 degrees, says Castellani. (It's unclear exactly why.) It's also unclear whether exercising in cold conditions makes people any more vulnerable to sports injuries like muscle pulls or sprains, he says. One caution for people with heart problems: The American College of Sports Medicine says that bodily cooling can lower the threshold for the onset of angina, so check with your doctor before you start a cold-weather workout routine.
You're more likely to get chilled when you stop working out, particularly if you've been sweating and you're wet, says Roberts. So get inside quickly, or at least have some dry clothes handy to change into. And take heart in the fact that you'll acclimate a bit to the cold as the winter goes on. Your skin will allow an increased amount of blood flow in response to cold, so you'll feel warmer. (The effects aren't as dramatic as acclimating to heat while exercising, though.)
If outdoor exercise in the cold isn't your thing, just take it inside. If you usually cycle, take a spin class; if you're a walker, hit that treadmill or another machine. "It's a personal choice," says Castellani. "Tomorrow I'm going snowshoeing with the dog. Other people would think, 'You're crazy!' and stay inside."