Get outdoors and be active this winter

Cold and snow don’t have to be barriers to outdoor, winter exercise.

It is almost the end of January, and much of the state has experienced weeks on end of extremely cold temperatures. Cold, snow and adverse weather in general, can be real deterrents to getting regular physical activity – but they don’t have to be. During winter, many engage in indoor physical activities such as mall walking, exercise classes, joining a gym or at-home video series, because we feel it’s too cold, too snowy, too uninviting or even too dangerous to workout outside. While I am not advocating that anyone go outside in below zero, whiteout conditions, there are ways you can enjoy outdoor activity throughout most of winter without risking frostbite or falls on ice.

The main key to successful cold weather exercise is proper clothing. Choosing the right outfit in most conditions can nearly negate any unpleasantness due to weather. The first thing to do is actually go outside and feel the conditions – is it windy, is the sun out, is there any ice or snow that you will be exercising on? While checking the weather on your smartphone may give you an idea of temperature, the best way to know what it’s like outside is to check it out for yourself. If temperatures are very low or if there is wind, the most important thing to consider is properly covering your skin, including your face and ears. Cover as much of your exposed skin as possible, including your mouth to prevent breathing in cold air. Goggles or sunglasses will help prevent cold wind from getting to your eyes.

Next, consider layers for the majority of the rest of your body. Remember that although you may feel fairly cold at the start of your workout, after a few minutes your body will warm up and you’ll start to sweat. Try not to overdress in anticipation of the initial cold as it may make you colder when you sweat and dampen your clothes too much. Moisture-wicking, breathable layers will help prevent this. This way when you do get too hot, you can simply take a layer off.

Another tricky area to consider in winter is footwear. Many activities, like snowshoeing, may allow for the use of heavy winter boots, but as a general rule, you don’t want to wear heavy boots for typical aerobic activities like running or walking. They may keep your feet warm, but they could lead to injuries if used for physical activities over time. On the other hand, your regular running or walking shoes may leave your toes exposed to the cold and wetness, or may be too slippery on snow and ice. Consider a pair of light hiking shoes to use for winter, and get a size that will fit a thicker pair of socks. Hiking shoes are often built for more aerobic activity, but are often more water resistant and have better tread for slippery conditions. A pair of leg gaiters will pair well to help keep snow out of your shoes.

By now you may be wondering why on earth anyone would want to workout in the cold and snow. It turns out that aside from the general benefits of regular physical activity, exercising outdoors has a few added benefits. One possible added benefit is that our bodies typically burn more calories when exercising in the cold. This is because it takes more energy to keep our core temperature up, thus burning more calories to stay warm. This could help our bodies adapt to colder temperatures as well, so those frigid temperatures won’t feel so cold after a while. Another benefit is fresh air (as long as you’re not living in a high pollution area). During the winter months we are often trapped indoors, in groups and communicable germs are spread from person to person. Getting out in the fresh air gets you away from those germs, and also gets you away from breathing the dry air from heating systems, which can dry out your nasal passages and leave you more vulnerable to viruses.

Don’t let winter get you down. Get outside for physical activity if conditions are safe to do so. Michigan State University Extension recommends adults get at least 2.5 hours of aerobic activity each week and children 60 minutes every day.

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