Health & Fitness

Exercising outdoors in cold weather has mental, physical benefits

All lanes are open: a lifeguard stays warm in a little shelter at the edge of the Silver Spring, Md., YMCA’s outdoor swimming pool. Exercise in winter.
All lanes are open: a lifeguard stays warm in a little shelter at the edge of the Silver Spring, Md., YMCA’s outdoor swimming pool. Exercise in winter. The Washington Post

At the height of last year’s polar vortex, Megan Jones watched the temperature drop “with a strange glee,” she says. The bone-chilling weather brought a welcome challenge to the 41-year-old Arlington, Va., resident’s workout. When it comes to exercising outside, “I don’t think there is a ‘too cold' for me,” says Jones, who regularly commutes about three miles by bike and races with the all-women Team Sticky Fingers cycling team. “The fresh air and scenery are worth it,” she says of her winter rides, for the “greater sense of accomplishment than spinning in place toward nowhere.”

Many people, understandably, want to hibernate in colder weather. Even going to the gym seems that much harder. But for some of us, winter is not an impediment but an opportunity to push ourselves a little harder to run, bike and even swim outside. Outdoor exercise might save you the price of a gym membership and, as long as you’re careful, offers benefits for body and mind.

For one thing, outdoor exercise can help fend off seasonal affective disorder. “Part of what makes people miserable in the winter is being confined,” says Norman E. Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and author of “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.” “Getting outside opens a whole vista,” he says. “The greater the light in your environment, the more serotonin release in the brain – and that is known to be a very potent mood regulator.”

Dan Guilbeault, who is 35 and lives in the District of Columbia, has experienced this sort of emotional uplift. “During particularly cold weather, running on the Mall at night can almost be meditative,” he says. “There are very few other people out, and with snow, all the sound is even mellowed.”

Louise Papile, 65, a longtime outdoor winter swimmer, relishes the “contrast between the cold air and the warmth of the pool.” (She swims at the Silver Spring, Md., YMCA, which has a heated outdoor pool that is open year-round and closes only in extreme conditions.) She says her Nordic-style workout is more refreshing and stimulating than exercising indoors. She’s even swum while it snowed and loves watching the sky change while doing the backstroke.

As Ginny Wright, a fitness instructor who has been running outdoor classes in Northern Virginia for more than a decade, puts it: “Exercising in winter is amazingly invigorating. It is the best natural mood enhancer … especially when it’s sunny.”

The benefits of outdoor winter exercise are also physical. Exercising in the cold requires extra exertion to raise your body temperature, burning more calories than comparable exercise indoors. Wind resistance adds an extra challenge. “If you are making athletic-level effort – cycling hard, running at a training level – you are burning 10 to 40 percent more calories in the cold than you would in more temperate temperatures,” says Jo Zimmerman, an instructor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland and a longtime trainer.

Exercising outside also means avoiding gym germs. A bunch of people sweating in close quarters, using the same equipment and locker rooms, makes gyms “a good place to pick up a potential pathogen,” says Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.” Despite what your grandmother might have told you about catching a cold in the cold, it’s germs that make you sick, and you are less likely to encounter them if you are biking or running outside than when you are pounding away on an elliptical machine that has been used by who knows whom all day.

Of course, there are risks to exercising in the cold: falling on ice, hypothermia, dehydration and exposure to sun and wind. People with heart or respiratory problems need to be especially mindful, but despite popular beliefs to the contrary, your lungs will not freeze on a cold run.

But cold-weather risks are smaller if you’re prepared.

For running or biking, dressing in layers is key, especially with materials that fend off wind and wick away wetness and clothes that can be unzipped as you get warm. Some runners like compression tights, and on really cold, windy days, a balaclava, ski mask or a layer of oil-based lotion on your face can help with the wind. A hat and gloves or mittens are also vital. (Basically, you don’t want any of your body exposed, unless you’re swimming in a heated pool, in which case, just a suit will do – and two dry towels, one outside, one warm one waiting for you inside.)

Take more time to warm up and ease into your workout slowly to acclimate to the temperature, Zimmerman suggests, and take more time to cool down at the end of your routine. And don’t forget to hydrate – even a warm beverage will do. You may not notice your thirst when you’re cold, she says, but you are still losing fluids.

Megan Jones says she doesn’t mind the additional effort it takes to gear up for her morning bike ride. Tackling the cold through exercise gives her “an extra boost as I go through the day,” she says. “After battling wind chills, rain, snow or just even the plain cold, I know that I’ve already accomplished something even before hitting my desk.”

Cold-weather advice

From Jo Zimmerman, a trainer and instructor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, here are a few ways to stay comfortable and safe while exercising in the cold:

Dress appropriately

Layer your clothing so you can remove items as you warm up. Ideally, the outer layer would be windproof (check the label to make sure it still “breathes” to let moisture out) and the inner layer would wick moisture away from your body. Cover your head, hands and feet. Mittens are warmer than gloves. For longer runs or windy bike rides, try layering thin gloves under some larger mittens. Wool or wool-blend socks will feel warmer than cotton when damp. Hats are great, but a headband or earmuffs might be more comfortable for some people.

Stay hydrated

Drinking throughout the day is the best strategy in any season, but especially in winter because cold-weather exercise might make it harder to think about drinking cold water.

Apply sunscreen

You can still get a burn in winter if you are outside long enough. Also wear UV-protective sunglasses in strong daylight and in snowy conditions.

Make yourself visible

Shorter days mean more workouts in the dark. Wear reflectors or LED blinkers on your clothing or equipment. Brightly colored clothing can also enhance visibility during low-light or nighttime workouts.

Beware of ice

Roads, trails, sidewalks and even grassy areas can have icy patches, so try to think about those surfaces if the temperature is below freezing.

Warm up and cool down

In cold temperatures it is especially important to take time for the transition from low- to high-level activity and back again, but work quickly enough to avoid becoming chilled and uncomfortable. Five minutes of a low level of activity is usually enough, but for more intense exercise, a two-step warm-up might be smart.

When you’re finished, remove your cold, wet clothes in exchange for something warm and dry as soon as possible. A hot shower might be tempting, but a warm shower is a better idea. If your skin is chilled and a bit numb, you might not know that the shower is actually too hot.

Be safe

In any extreme conditions, tell someone where you’re going, what you’re planning to do and when you expect to be back.