(CNN) -- This winter is hampering many people's exercise goals. As the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus continues its rapid spread around the world, exercising indoors and in public gyms has become less attractive, or virtually inaccessible.
However, recent storms and falling temperatures can make outdoor workouts seem overwhelming, or even dangerous. However, experts say there is no need to fear facing the elements.
"Exercising in the cold is not a health hazard and can be a healthy activity," says Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor at Tauberg Chiropractic & Rehabilitation in Pittsburgh.
Being outdoors and in nature is good for mental health, studies show. This is especially true during the winter, when many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression. There's just one caveat for outdoor winter workouts, says Tauberg: take proper precautions.
The risks are very real. Cold weather is a leading cause of death among people who play sports, according to the expert consensus statement on exercise in cold weather published by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in November 2021. The body works harder to maintain its core temperature when it's cold, and it's easy to become dehydrated, frostbitten, or hypothermic.
That said, it's not hard to avoid disaster. Here are the top ways to assess your risk and mitigate potential dangers once you're outdoors.
Important Note: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.
Know the temperature and wind chill
If we add wind to low temperatures, they can be a deadly combination, so check both the forecast and the wind chill factor before you head out. When the wind chill value approaches -31.7°C, a freeze can occur within 15 minutes, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Even when the air temperature is -15°C, freezing can occur in half an hour if the wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour. There are also other considerations.
"We know that if we go outside on a cloudy day where the temperature of the dry bulb thermometer is -23°C, it feels very different from a sunny day where the temperature is the same, but you have solar charge," says Mike Tipton, professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England, and a contributor to the ACSM expert consensus statement.
But if you want to have a flat figure to go by, the ACSM recommends staying indoors when the temperature is below -8°F or -22°C.
Know your personal risk factors
Unfortunately, some people are more susceptible than others to injury or health problems when exercising in the cold. The ACSM includes men, blacks, smokers, and those with heart and vascular disease among groups predisposed to frostbite.
"People with asthma, and especially exercise-induced asthma, need to be very careful when exercising in the cold," Tauberg said. "Asthma can be aggravated by cold, dry air and trigger attacks."
dressing in layers
One of the most critical aspects of exercising safely in the cold is dressing in layers, with three being the magic number: an inner layer that touches the skin and draws sweat to the outer layers; an intermediate layer that serves as the main insulator; and a lightweight outer layer that repels wind and rain while allowing moisture to escape from the body.
This three-tier system works, in part, by trapping air between the layers, which serves as additional insulation against the elements. But you have to select layers of suitable materials, such as wool or technical fabrics such as Polartec or Dryline, which help ensure that sweat moves away from the body and is released to evaporate into the air. Also, a hat is a must; you can lose at least half of your body heat if you are bareheaded. It is also important to cover your hands and neck.
Adjust your layers as needed
The main purpose of layering clothing is that it allows you to take clothes off when you get hot and put them back on when you get cold.
If you don't remove layers when you heat up, you're likely to overheat and sweat. And when you sweat, water droplets fill the gaps between your layers, replacing air that helps with insulation. As long as you're working out and still generating heat, a little sweat isn't a big deal. But if you stop moving you have a problem, because cold air and water are a deadly combination that promotes hypothermia.
"It's hard to keep taking things off, putting them in the backpack and putting them back on," Tipton said. "The urge to keep going is huge. But you have to fight that urge and just do it."
Pay attention to your footwear
Some people assume that an insulated, waterproof boot or shoe is the best footwear for winter. However, if you wear an insulated, vapor-tight shoe or boot, you'll sweat and end up with cold, clammy feet. You can even get frostbite if you're wearing that warm shoe, Tipton says, though if your feet are cold and wet for many hours, you're more likely to get a non-freezing cold injury, such as trench foot, which can be a major problem. .
So make sure you choose vapor permeable footwear for your winter workouts. And if you're going to be walking, running, or hiking where there's a lot of ice, wear traction boots or snowshoes.
Drink drink drink
Dehydration is not just a phenomenon of hot weather. In fact, it can be more of a concern when the temperature drops. This is because you breathe in frozen air and then heat and moisten it in your lungs before exhaling 100% of the water vapor. According to Tipton, you can lose up to 2-3 liters of fluid per hour and become seriously dehydrated. And what's worse, the cold decreases thirst by up to 40%, so you may not even realize you're getting dehydrated.
It is best to drink before, during and after exercise. "Sip water often, don't drink it all in one gulp," says Sue Hitzmann, a therapist and connective tissue specialist in New York. "If you drink more consistently and more frequently, your cells stay more hydrated and will transport nutrients more efficiently."
Drinking 10 ounces, or 293 milliliters, of water every 30 minutes is the recommendation of Dr. Mark Slabaugh, an orthopedic and sports medicine surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "However, increasing wind chill requires even greater fluid intake," he says.
Get energy properly
If you're going to be exercising in the cold for more than an hour, it's important to eat some snacks to keep your blood sugar levels up. Some possibilities: a peanut butter sandwich, trail mix, or an energy bar.
"If your blood sugar drops too low, you'll lose your ability to shiver and your perception of cold," says Tipton. "You'll tend to think you're hotter than you are."
Stretch before and after exercising
Stretching is even more important during the cold winter months, when your muscles contract to conserve heat, making them tighter and more prone to injury, said Jorden Gold, founder of Stretch Zone, a chain of stretching facilities. professionally assisted stretching, and adjunct professor at the Educating Hands School of Massage.
"Think of your muscle like candy," he says. "A cold candy stick would tear or break if you tried to quickly bend or stretch it before warming it up in your hands first."
Stretching in winter is even more important.
Gold recommends performing dynamic warm-up stretches, such as leg kicks or arm circles, for at least 10 minutes when the temperature drops to 45°F or 7°C. Add five minutes to that for every 10 degrees cooler. After exercise, doing some static cool-down stretches, which refers to holding a position for 30 seconds or more, will help lower your heart rate and relax your muscles, as well as improve your range of motion and flexibility for future workouts.
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