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— November 16, 2013


By Beverly Burmeier
  • Some commonsense precautions can keep you exercising when it’s cold outside.

The weather may be frightful this winter, but that’s no reason to forego outdoor pursuits. If you trade exercise for sitting by the fire huddled under a pile of sweaters there may be a heftier you to get moving come spring.

“Your outdoor running and walking routines don’t have to go away when it’s cold. Just modify them a little,” says Valerie Walkowiak, medical fitness-integration coordinator at the Loyola Center for Fitness in Maywood, Illinois. “Winter can be a great time for outdoor activity if you’re prepared.”

Sure, it’s hard to leave the warmth and comfort of your home or office. But winter is the time to enjoy pursuits such as hockey, ice skating, skiing and snowshoeing. Being prepared when temperatures plummet will help you stay both fit and safe.

Gearing Up

Dressing appropriately can make any cold-weather activity more pleasurable while protecting you against the potential hazards posed by low temperatures.

“Avoid heavy coats because when you sweat, you’ll feel colder from moisture sitting on the skin. Sweating may also lead to dehydration,” Walkowiak advises. Instead dress in layers, so you can take off pieces as your body generates heat.

The innermost layer should be made of synthetic material that allows evaporation of moisture. Cover that layer with a sweater, then an outer shell or jacket that is wind- and waterproof yet breathable.

Walkowiak recommends footwear with soles that can provide traction on snow, ice or uneven surfaces as well as waterproof outerwear—shoes, hat, gloves—to keep you dry. The hat is especially important; you can lose a lot of body heat through your head.

Cold weather isn’t the only hazard you need to protect yourself against. Reflective gear and light-colored clothing can make you visible to motorists, especially in the early morning or at dusk. And a light can help illuminate potholes and rocks in your path.

While it may not be enjoyable, shoveling snow certainly qualifies as exercise. But it can be taxing on the heart, especially if you aren’t used to the effort.

“Snow is heavy, so be sure to use a shovel you can push rather than lift,” Walkowiak says. “Don’t try to lift a huge section of snow all at once, and take rest breaks.” Sprinkling sand or a non-salt based de-icer on your driveway or sidewalk may help prevent falls on hard-to-see black ice.

Know Your Body

If you’re not used to vigorous exercise, winter isn’t the best time to start a fitness program unless you have access to an indoor facility. But even if you continue to follow a regular routine, know your limits and listen to your body. If your muscles feel tired, you can’t keep up your usual pace or you feel thirsty, it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing. Cold and wind can zap energy quickly, so find a warming center or indoor area where you can recover.

“Stay away from caffeine products,” Walkowiak advises. “Although it’s tempting to drink a cup of hot coffee or hot chocolate to warm up, caffeine may accelerate dehydration. Drinking water is the best way to stay hydrated and keep the body performing efficiently.”

Walkowiak cautions against eating protein before exercising, as blood will go to your digestive system rather than to your extremities. “Because fruit is usually digested within an hour that’s a good snack. After exercise, eat to replenish protein and carbohydrate stores,” she adds.

Hypothermia, in which overall body temperature falls below a safe level, can occur in winter temperatures as warm as 50 degrees for prolonged periods that you would encounter if you’re, say, running a marathon or cycling long distances. Be alert to symptoms such as shivering, confusion and slurred speech. If they occur go indoors and warm yourself gradually but avoid extreme heat.

Be aware of the danger posed by frostbite, in which skin and underlying tissues begin to freeze; a numb or painful sensation is the first sign. Skin turning white indicates restricted blood flow; if that happens seek medical help. To prevent frostbite, always wear a hat, scarf and gloves in very cold weather.

Also keep in mind that cold weather doesn’t protect you against sunburn.

“Sunscreen is almost more important in winter than in summer because snow or ice can reflect more than 80% of ultraviolet radiation, compared to between 10% and 15% for water and beach sand in summer,” says Ashani Weeraratna, PhD, assistant professor in The Wistar Institute’s Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program in Philadelphia.

Weeraratna recommends wearing a hat with a brim that provides a protective shadow over the face. And don’t forget to protect your lips; using a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15 (30 is even better) can also help prevent painful cold sores around your mouth.

Your immune system also needs protection. Zinc and the probiotic S. salivarius K12 help maintain a healthy upper respiratory tract; ARA-Larix, olive leaf and andrographis support proper immune function.

It does no good to protect yourself against winter’s glare if you’re going to tan indoors. “People often get depressed in winter and seek out tanning booths to lift their spirits, but that’s never a good idea,” Weeraratna says. “Melanoma doesn’t hibernate.”

Instead of using cold temperatures as an excuse to stay inside, get out and enjoy winter’s invigorating chill.

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