When the Weather Outside Is Frightful: 10 Tips for Warmer Winter Workouts

| Feb 1, 2005

Note: Be sure to consult with your diabetes care team before starting any new exercise program.

Winter brings shorter days, longer nights and all too often, lousy weather. We need to respect the impact of cold weather on our bodies and learn to adapt our routines so we can work out safely in the winter.

This is even more important for people with diabetes, because complications of the disease (especially nerve damage) and the effects of some medications may alter the body’s ability to maintain body core temperature.

Here are 10 tips for exercising in cold or windy conditions, when conserving body heat is important:

1. Wear Headgear

Forty percent of body heat lost due to cold is lost through the head, so headgear is critical. Men’s body temperature drops more rapidly because their circulatory system directs warm blood to the extremities, keeping hands and feet warm. Women, however, retain most of their body heat in the torso, so they must watch more carefully for frostbite of the hands and feet. And be aware of the wind chill factor. A 20 mph wind at 20 degrees produces a “cooling effect” equivalent to -10 degrees.

2. Wear Layers

Staying warm requires that you trap warm, dry air next to the body. Thus, the “layered look” is “in.” The ideal outfit is an undershirt, a shirt, a sweater and a light, waterproof windbreaker. It is better to wear one pair of fluffy socks than two pairs of tightly fitting socks. The second pair of socks just takes up space where the warm air should be and restricts blood flow to the feet.

3. Mittens Not Gloves

Mittens are warmer than gloves because there is a greater volume of air around each finger, and the air is warmed by four fingers instead of one. In addition, the friction of fingers brushing against one another generates additional heat. However, when driving, gloves offer more dexterity and safety than mittens.

4. Thicker Is Better

A garment’s warmth is determined by its density, not by its weight. A one-pound down-filled ski parka that is two inches thick will keep you warmer than a four-pound woolen overcoat that is only half an inch thick.

5. Before Exercising, Have a Hot Meal

The body absorbs heat from hot foods and beverages like soup, oatmeal, tea and cocoa.

6. Warm Up Indoors First

Before going outside, do some warm-up exercises for a minimum of five minutes. Cold air causes the arteries to constrict, and a brief warm up may help minimize this.

7. Inhale Through the Nose, Exhale Through the Mouth

Inhaled air is warmed in the lungs. Scarves and ski masks worn over the nose and mouth help to warm the air you breathe.

8. Keep Moving

Active muscles will continue to generate heat. The body becomes chilled when you stop moving.

9. No Alcohol, No Smoking Before Exercising in the Cold

Smoking and drinking waste body heat and confuse the body’s “thermostat,” which distributes and conserves body heat. And be cautious with your alcohol intake: Check with your healthcare provider to be sure drinking is safe for you.

10. Maintain Your Proper Weight

Surprisingly, being overweight leaves you more vulnerable to the cold. Layers of fat insulate the nerve endings that activate the body’s thermoregulation, or heat-making processes. You will maintain body warmth better with a higher ratio of muscle to fat. Don’t let the cold and bad weather keep you from your exercise routine. Follow these suggestions, and your winter workouts will be warmer, safer and more enjoyable.

Serious Injuries Associated With Cold-Weather Exercise

The most common disabling cold-related injuries are cold stress, frostbite, lung burn and hypothermia.

Hypothermia and frostbite are the most serious of these. Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature that causes uncontrolled shivering. Frostbite attacks the feet, hands, ears and nose, in that order. The affected extremity will appear pale and stiff to the touch.

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