Yes, we all know we should exercise everyday and most of us know we don’t do nearly enough. Add cold damp weather and very limited daylight hours, and any determination we had to increase our exercise levels can go right out of the window.
But of course even in cold weather it is important for us to make that effort to keep fit; and when we do we should be aware of the specific risks of exercising in colder conditions, and what we should do to counteract them.
Core body temperature
When we exercise in cold weather, it can become difficult to keep our core temperature. We naturally control our body temperature very precisely indeed; keeping at pretty well exactly 37?C, and varying by only 1?C on either side. Cold weather conditions can make the maintenance of this core body temperature more difficult to maintain; if core body temperature falls below 35?C then hypothermia can set in.
Factors which affect the rate of heat loss from our body include the temperature of the air or water, wind speed, body composition and body size. A wet person on dry land will lose heat at a quicker rate than a dry one. Therefore the risks of exercising in the cold are greater if it is raining or snowing.
During low intensity exercise such as walking it is likely that the heat generated through the exercise will not be sufficient to counteract the heat that is being lost. It is therefore essential that precautions are taken. In this case the best course of action is to ensure that the body is well insulated by wearing appropriate clothing (see below). At the same time it is important that the body is not over insulated, otherwise the body’s core temperature may rise causing negative effects from excessive heat.
Moderate – High Intensity Exercise
During moderate to high intensity exercises such as running or cycling there is little concern for core temperature due to the heat generated through the exercise. It is only when the air temperature reaches -10?C that a loss of performance will become a factor. However, when you start to tire or slow down, and your sweat begins to dry, you can start losing heat quickly.
No matter how intensive exercise has been everyone should avoid rapid cooling when they stop exercising. You should get out of the cold environment as quickly as possible and of course remove any wet clothing. Even if you are feeling hot from the exertion, that could disappear quickly once you stop generating heat from the exercise. You may need to add some extra layers quite quickly to stop your body cooling off and loosing too much core heat once you have stopped exercising.
Layered clothing is by far the best for exercise in colder weather. One mistake cold-weather exercisers often make is dressing too warmly. Exercise generates a considerable amount of heat – and sweat. The answer is to dress in layers so that you can remove a layer once you start to sweat and pop it back on once you start to chill.
Start with 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, put on an insulating layer such as a fleece to keep you warm and then obviously an outer layer to protect you against wind and rain. A heavy down jacket or vest will cause most people to overheat. If you're naturally lean, though, you'll need more insulation than someone who is heavier.
When it's cold, blood is shunted to 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. Obviously if you want to play golf or tennis in icy conditions, then you will need thin gloves with possibly an extra lining so that you can keep your fingers warm without detracting too much from your grip. You might want to buy exercise shoes a half-size larger than usual to allow for thick thermal socks or an extra pair of regular socks.
Most of us know that we can lose a high level of heat through our heads, so don’t forget to pop on a soft balaclava or appropriate headgear in very cold conditions.
It is plain common sense to ensure your trainers or the shoes you are wearing have the right grip for the conditions you are going out it. Don’t risk going out in your old shoes, however comfortable they are, if the soles are worn. One quick slip on a wet road or sports surface and you could be out of action for a long time.
Finally, be aware how dark and gloomy some days can be even at midday; so if you are road walking or running, wear a reflective jacket or clothing.
If you exercise in the depth of a cold spell, especially earlier or later in the day, the air can feel like ice and those early breaths can feel they are piercing your lungs. The good news is that unless you are an asthma sufferer, there is no scientific evidence that you can damage your lungs through exercising in the cold. You can wear a scarf, or even a face mask, around your nose and mouth to help warm the air as you breathe in. Asthma sufferers need to take a little more care about the conditions they go out in as a sudden onslaught of cold air can irritate the lungs and trigger an attack.
Finally, don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids, even if you aren’t feeling thirsty – you can become just as dehydrated in the cold as in the heat from sweating, breathing and increased urine production.