Has the arrival of the frost made you neglect your exercise routine? Dig out those trainers and think again! Instead of hindering your exercise, researchers have found that cold weather can actually improve your workout. Whether you like running, walking, playing tennis or cycling, exercising outdoors is a fantastic way to improve your health.
Check out the latest research that examines your body’s response to outdoor exercise, then explore our tips on how to enjoy an effective and safe cold weather workout.
Sports scientists have found that the human body benefits from cold weather exercise. The cooler temperature puts less stress on your heart, making the exercise feel easier which will enable you to work out harder, for longer.
Latest research on cold weather exercise
The recent research from St Mary’s University suggests that even a small difference in temperature has a huge impact on your performance.
Professor John Brewer said: “Scientists have tended to think that the seasonal changes in temperature we experience in the UK aren’t extreme enough to create physiological changes … [but] our findings have proven that there absolutely are positive adaptations that come with exercising in a typical winter temperature compared to a typical summer temperature.”
In the trials, runners worked out for 40 minutes at either 8 degrees C or 22 degrees C to replicate British winter time and summer time temperatures.
The study revealed that the heart rate of runners was 6% higher in the summer temperature, while their sweat rate was 38% higher. The perceived exertion rate was also higher in the summer-temperature group.
Trying to keep cool in hot weather places extra stress on the heart and cardiovascular system, and increases the rate at which your body needs to sweat.
Clothing for Cold Weather Exercise
Make sure you wear warm clothing when exercising outside in winter. Wear several layers to keep the heat in and allow you to shed the layers if necessary once you are warmed up.
Remember up to 50% of your body’s heat escapes through your head, so consider wearing a hat – a close-fitting beanie is a good choice for cold weather exercise.
Avoid heavy cotton clothing when exercising in cold weather as this can trap sweat next to the skin and increase the risk of chill.
Good choices for winter exercise clothing are lightweight, synthetic materials to wick moisture away from your skin. Add another layer or two of fleece for insulating warmth and top it off with a lightweight, water-repellent and wind-resistant material.
Wear gloves to protect your fingers and if it is really cold, layer up with thin gloves and heavier mittens on top, so you can always shed the outer layer later, but your fingers are still protected.
Cover your face with a scarf when exercising in temperatures close to or below freezing. This reduces wind chill and it can also help warm the air before it enters your lungs.
Safety for Winter Exercise
Safety also becomes more of an issue in winter due to shorter days and lack of daylight. If you are exercising after dark, stay in well-lit areas and wear bright and reflective clothing.
Avoid listening to music while running outdoors as not being able to hear what is happening around you can make you vulnerable.
Wear sturdy footwear with good traction to prevent slips and falls on snow or ice.
If there is excessive rain or ice on the footpaths, leave your running to another day. The weather could improve tomorrow, but if you slip an injury could take weeks to heal.
Drink plenty of fluids – remember staying hydrated is just as important during cold weather as during hot weather.
In the colder weather it is more important to make sure you perform a good warm up before exercising. This ensures your muscles are warmed up and your heart rate gets elevated gently and slowly, easing you into your workout.
Uncomfortable Eyes and Nose
One problem many runners face in the cold wind is streaming eyes and nose. This can be really uncomfortable and prevent you seeing properly and breathing freely.
This is a common complaint and happens due to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in your sinuses, which can make your eyes and nose run.
The effect is intensified in cold weather because when you inhale cold air, the tissue inside the nose automatically increases fluid production to protect your lungs from the cold, dry air.
Wearing clear sports sunglasses for cold weather exercise can help protect your eyes from the sting of the wind. Similarly, a scarf tied high to cover your nose and mouth, or a snood, can reduce the wind from affecting your airways and help warm up the air you are breathing.
If your eyes or nose bothers you and gets easily irritated when exercising in cold weather, it might be a good idea to take a tissue or handkerchief tucked your clothing, a pocket or a pouch.
Can Exercising in the Cold Weather Give You a Cold?
The only way you get a cold is when you come into contact with a cold virus.
Cold air may irritate a condition you already have, which could make your body more receptive to a cold virus. However, the cold temperature alone cannot give you a cold.
If you already have a mild cold, a gentle workout could help to clear your head and make you feel better.
However, if your cold is heavy and already making you feel bad, your body will need rest to recover. In this case, it is best to wait until your cold clears up on its own before exercising heavily.
Don’t think of this resting time as a waste. Think of it as re-fueling your body with sleep and resting up so you can come back stronger. There is no point pushing yourself while feeling ill as you could make it worse and get an injury that could put you out of action for even longer.
Avoid winter weight gain
People are often tempted to eat more during the colder months with ‘comfort food’ being a priority. We all over-indulge at this time (seconds of pud, anyone?) so it is important to keep up with your exercise routine to offset the extra food.
Exercising will help you manage your weight and keep your body in good condition over the winter.
There are also some surprising foods that can help you lose weight, so add some of these to your diet over the winter months and you might find losing the Christmas weight easier come January!
Risks of exercising in cold weather
Although exercising in cold weather is generally fine and advisable, there are some concerns to be aware of if you have an existing health condition.
The primary dangers of cold weather exercise are frost bite, hypothermia, and an increased risk of heart attack.
Frostbite could occur in temperatures below 20 degrees F (-6.6 degrees C), so it is best to avoid exercising outside if the temperature is this low.
Hypothermia can occur when your core body temperature falls below 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), so look out for excessive shivering, fatigue or dizziness and stop exercising immediately if you feel unwell.
Although the recent research from St Mary’s University suggests that the stress on your heart decreases in colder weather, if the air gets to freezing temperatures, exercising can actually increase the stress on your heart.
When you are in extremely low temperatures outdoors, your cardiovascular system can respond by increasing blood pressure and heart rate.
If you already have an existing heart condition, this could potentially promote a heart attack. Your airway tends to narrow in the cold too, which can make breathing more difficult.
It is best to avoid exercising in freezing weather if you have asthma, exercise-induced bronchitis, a heart condition or Raynaud’s disease (a blood circulation condition).
So it seems that the cooler weather can usually give you a great workout and actually be much better for you than exercising in hotter temperatures. But if the temperature falls to below freezing, there are some negative issues to be aware of, especially if you already have a health condition.
What do you think about cold weather exercise?
Have you been exercising outside during the cold snap?
What do you wear for cold weather workouts?
What do you find most difficult or unpleasant about working out in cold weather?
What are your best tips for effective exercise throughout the winter months?