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Exercising in cold weather: Some helpful guidelines

Family running outside in cold weather Family running outside in cold weather

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People who like to exercise outdoors can become very discouraged during the winter months as freezing temperatures, snow and ice challenge a fitness regimen. 

“The main thing you want to remember, if you’re going to exercise outdoors, is to stay dry and wear loose layers,” said Army Capt. Jon Umlauf, assistant chief of physical therapy at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “Avoid wearing cotton-blend clothing against your skin, which will trap moisture close to your body. You want to wear something that wicks moisture away from your body. Fabrics that are made using polypropylene, capilene and some synthetic wool blends help to transport moisture away from your body. In addition, wear clothing that’s loose and layered, to help trap warm air.” 

Umlauf also suggests that if you’re going to do any kind of high-intensity training in the cold weather, be sure to stretch and warm up properly. “It may be beneficial to warm up indoors before going outside,” he said. “This can help ensure the flexibility of your muscles and joints. And before heading out, check the forecast for the time you'll be outside. Temperature, wind and humidity, along with the length of time that you'll be outside, are key considerations in planning a safe cold-weather workout.” 

The combination of air temperature and wind speed make up the wind chill index, which is commonly included in winter weather forecasts. Wind chill extremes can make exercising outdoors unsafe even if you dress warmly. The wind can penetrate your clothes and remove the insulating layer of warm air that surrounds your body, and any exposed skin is vulnerable to frostbite. 

Thinking about having a cup of coffee before your workout? Umlauf says caffeine consumption before a workout may enhance your performance, but that doesn’t mean more is better. “Moderation is always a factor when you intake anything, and this is no exception,” he said.

When it comes to footwear, Umlauf suggests whatever you wear, make sure it provides good traction. “If you’re going to go out for a run, you want to have footwear that will prevent slips and falls,” he said. “With the likelihood of snow and ice patches, you want shoes that can give you grip and stability. And when you’re done, make sure to remove your socks so you can allow your feet to warm up. If you’re going to be running in the snow, your feet are going to get wet, making you susceptible to cold weather injuries, such as frostbite.” 

Lastly, Umlauf advises that you check with your physician if beginning a new workout routine. You should also eat healthy foods and keep yourself hydrated as part of an overall fitness plan. “Keeping yourself motivated, and maintaining consistency with your efforts, will help you attain your fitness goals,” he said. “Staying fit can have a positive impact in your personal and professional life.”

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