Mayo Clinic Health Library

Exercise and cold weather: Tips to stay safe outdoors

Updated: 10-30-2010

So you don't like grinding out miles on the treadmill or power walking the malls, but you dread exercising during cold weather. Unfortunately, cold weather can discourage even the most motivated exercisers. And if you're not so motivated, it's all too easy to pack away your workout gear along with your warm-weather clothing.

You don't have to let cold weather spell the end of your exercise. With these tips for exercising during cold weather, you can stay fit, motivated and warm when the weather turns chilly.

Stay safe during cold-weather exercise

Almost everyone can exercise safely during cold weather. But if you have certain conditions, such as asthma, heart problems or Raynaud's disease, check with your doctor before you work out in cold weather. Your doctor can review any special precautions you need based on your condition or medications you might take. The following tips can also help you stay safe — and warm — while working out in the cold.

Dress in layers

One of the biggest mistakes you can make while exercising in cold weather is to dress too warmly. Exercise generates a considerable amount of heat — enough to make you feel like it's much warmer than it really is. Yet, once your sweat starts to dry, you can get chilled. The solution?

Dress in layers that you can remove as soon as you start to sweat and then put back on as needed. First, put on a thin layer of synthetic material, such as polypropylene, which draws sweat away from your body. Avoid cotton, which stays wet next to your skin. Next, add a layer of fleece or wool for insulation. Top this with a waterproof, breathable outer layer. A heavy down jacket or vest may cause you to overheat if you're exercising hard. If you're lean, you may need more insulation than someone who is heavier. If it's very cold, consider wearing a face mask or scarf to warm the air before it enters your lungs.

You may need to experiment before you find a combination of clothing that works well for you based on your exercise intensity. Keep in mind, too, that stop-and-go activities, such as mixing walking with running, can make you more vulnerable to the cold if you repeatedly work up a sweat and then get chilly.

Protect your hands, feet and ears

When it's cold, blood flow is concentrated on your body's core, leaving your hands and feet vulnerable to frostbite. Try wearing a thin pair of gloves under a pair of heavier gloves or mittens lined with wool or fleece. Don the mittens or gloves before your hands become cold and then remove them if your hands begin to sweat.

Considering buying exercise shoes a half-size or one size larger than usual to allow for thick thermal socks or an extra pair of regular socks. And don't forget a hat or headband to protect your ears, which also are vulnerable to frostbite.

Pay attention to weather conditions and wind chill

Exercising when it's cold and raining can make you more vulnerable to the cold. If you get soaked, you may not be able to keep your core body temperature high enough, and layering won't help if your clothes are wet. If it's extremely cold, you may need to take your exercise indoors or skip it for a day or two.

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.

If the temperature dips well below 0 F (-17.8 C) or the wind chill is extreme, consider taking a break or choosing an indoor activity instead, or take extra precautions if you choose to exercise outdoors anyway.

Choose appropriate gear

If it's dark when you exercise outside, wear reflective clothing. To stay steady on your feet, choose footwear with enough traction to prevent falls, especially if it's icy or snowy. Wear a helmet while skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling. Consider using chemical heat packs to warm up your hands or feet.

Remember sunscreen

It's as easy to get sunburned in winter as in summer — even more so if you're exercising in the snow or at high altitudes. Wear a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of at least 30. Use a lip balm that contains sunscreen. And protect your eyes from snow and ice glare with dark glasses or goggles.

Head into the wind

If possible, do the second half of your workout with the wind at your back. This way, you're less likely to get chilled, especially if you've worked up a sweat. This may take some planning of your exercise route before you head out the door.

Drink plenty of fluids

You need to stay well hydrated when exercising in cold weather just as you do when exercising in warm weather. Drink water or sports drinks before, during and after your workout, even if you're not really thirsty. You can become just as dehydrated in the cold as in the heat from sweating, breathing and increased urine production, but it may be harder to notice during cold weather.

Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia

Frostbite is most common on exposed skin, such as your cheeks, nose and ears, but it also can occur on hands and feet. Early warning signs include numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation. If you suspect frostbite, get out of the cold immediately and slowly warm the affected area — but don't rub it since that can damage your skin. If numbness continues, seek emergency care.

Exercising in cold, rainy weather increases the risk of hypothermia, as does being an older adult. Hypothermia signs and symptoms include intense shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination and fatigue. Seek emergency help right away for possible hypothermia.

Putting it all together for cold-weather safety

These tips can help you safely — and enjoyably — exercise when the weather turns chilly. But as you exercise during cold weather, continually monitor how your body feels to help prevent cold-weather injuries, such as frostbite. Consider shortening your outdoor workout or skipping it altogether during weather extremes, and know when to head home and warm up. Also, be sure to let someone know your exercise route and your expected return time, in case something does go wrong.