It’s that time of year again! Our outside workout regimens are becoming harder to attain due to the temperature creeping lower and lower. You may be the type of person that has a shiver automatically run down your spine when just THINKING about going outside in the cold. But guess what, it doesn’t have to be quite that bad, so long as you know how to properly dress for the occasion. So how should you dress in order to exercise outside in the winter, you may ask?
First, we’ll explain the why. Why is it important to dress appropriately? In relation to our topic today, I will give you a scenario: Imagine you are outside walking to your car (you parked pretty far away). In this scenario, it is cold outside, and you are losing body heat. This is where your body’s safety gear kicks in and says (not literally, of course), “time to rev up the heat in here!” In order to produce heat, one’s body does so through muscle activity. If you are not doing enough of it (i.e. exercising), your body will initiate involuntary muscle activity, such as shivering (Carlson, 2012, pg. 8). However, once your body temperature drops to a certain number, the shivering ceases and you are well on your way to hypothermia. Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature to below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (Carlson, 2012, pg. 10). This can occur any time in environmental conditions that are colder than internal body temperature. Symptoms of hypothermia include: shivering, pale skin, and bluing of the lips, hands, and feet (McGill, 2019, pg. 165). Additional signs of hypothermia include stumbling or decreased coordination, fatigue, drowsiness, impaired judgement, and lack of self-concern (Carlson, 2012, pg. 10). This leads us back to why it is so important to dress smart! Now, how do we do this? Let’s start at the top!
Seeing that your head is actually a place in which your body extracts heat, wearing a hat allows you to keep the heat in your body. You also may experience a discomfort of breathing in cold air because it is just ‘too cold’. Well, that just may be the case! Your lungs appreciate warmer air, as this improves humidification which reduces the irritation cold air causes (Carlson, 2012, pg. 10). This cold air issue can be easily resolved by wearing a piece of fabric like a mask or scarf over your mouth and nose; the breath you exhale is warming this area, and the fresh oxygen will in turn be warmed prior to entering your body. This eliminates the uncomfortable feeling of breathing in cold air all together.
…but in a smart way. Think about this: when you exercise, your body’s safety mechanism from overheating is to sweat. Your body pulls the heat from under your skin, creating sweat droplets on the surface of your skin to cool you off, which then evaporate (Roy, 2013, pg. 3). You may be thinking, “but it’s cold outside, I’m not going to sweat.” Well, that can be a false statement, as you can still sweat outside in the cold. Tying it back together, imagine you begin to sweat while exercising, but you are wearing layers of clothing which trap those sweat droplets in, in turn making your clothing a little damp; we all know this is not a good thing in the winter. This is why it is important to continue to wear clothing with ventilation and wicking material during the winter months. To break it down, I suggest wearing first a wicking layer to extract the sweat, followed by an insulation layer to trap in the warm air, and then lastly, a wind and rain repellent layer (which can be removed if it is not raining or windy out). In regards to types of fabric, I suggest synthetics (i.e. polypropylene) for the wicking layer, a fleece or synthetic for the insulation layer (NOT COTTON), and then a shell layer that will allow sweat out, and prevent wind or moisture from seeping in (Carlson, 2012, pg. 9).
Lastly, try wearing darker clothes. On the opposite side of what they say to do in the summer, feel free to wear clothes which will attract sunlight. While we do encourage you to wear a bright/reflective vest or strap for safety reasons, wearing a darker color underneath can help absorb the sunlight.
Gloves, mittens, and socks, OH MY! Be sure to at least cover your ears if you are not willing to wear a hat. When you are very cold and have hypothermia, your body will warm what it deems necessary to survive. In extreme cases where an individual may be stuck in the cold for a very long time, your body experiences vasoconstriction, which is when the body reduces the blood flow to the surface tissues under the skin, in turn retaining heat (Morrison, 2010, pg. 47). Vasoconstriction causes the blood to circulate the warm blood around the vital organs, leaving your extremities to get cold. This is why you typically see frostbite on an individual’s hands, feet, nose, and ears; your body knows that these tissues are not vital, so the warm blood is focused on the center of your body, where organs such as your heart, lungs, liver, etc. are located. Wearing warmer socks with a thin wool component help keep your feet dry and warm. This will help prevent those awful foot blisters we all strongly dislike as well. In sum, always cover your extremities to keep them warm!
Don’t forget about sunscreen and sunglasses. If your face is uncovered, those delightful rays of sunshine can still cause damage to your skin. Be sure to keep it protected. Also, the winter months are typically very bright due to the white snow. Add a little dampness to the mix, and you have yourself what I like to call snow blindness (yes, it’s a thing). Sunglasses can help reduce some of those glares and even reduce vision-related headaches due to these reflections, ensuring you can fully see where you are stepping so you do not injure yourself (Bird, 2013)! Lastly, I advise you to bring a cell phone along for the run. It may be rare for an individual to get stuck in the cold due to an injury while exercising, but guess what? It happens!! Keeping a cell phone on you will allow you to make that urgent phone call if something were to happen in which you needed assistance right then and there, or if you come across another individual who was injured and has been exposed to the cold for quite some time.
In summary, the proper way to dress in the cold in preparation for exercise is to wear a hat, gloves, warm socks, and to wear appropriate layers. Give this piece of advice a try, and let me know what you think! I promise it makes a difference and will maybe even get you to enjoy exercising outside when the temperature drops.
- Bird, C. (2013, December 26). Why Wearing Sunglasses in Winter Is Important. Retrieved from https://www.sweye.com/blog/general/why-wearing-sunglasses-in-winter-is-important/
- Carlson, M. J. (2012). Exercising In The Cold. ACSMs Health & Fitness Journal,16(1), 8-12. doi:10.1249/fit.0b013e31823cf99b
- McGill, E. A. (2019). Principles of Group Fitness Instruction (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
- Morrison, G. (2010). Exercise in the Cold. ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal,14(6), 47-49.
- Roy, B. A. (2013). Exercise and Fluid Replacement. ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal,17(4), 3.
This blog post was written to provide educational information only. This article should not be used as a substitute or a replacement for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have questions or concerns about your personal health, you should always consult with your physician. It is recommended that you consult with your physician or health care professional before beginning any fitness regimen to determine if it is suitable for your needs. The use of any information provided by this article is solely at your risk.