When cold weather months approach, engaging in outdoor activities and staying active can become difficult. However, working out in cold weather can provide many health benefits, such as improved endurance and cardiac function and enhanced mood and mental health. This article will outline the benefits of cold-weather cardio and discuss safety precautions so you can continue to engage in outdoor workouts even when the temperature drops.
Cold-weather cardio can provide numerous health benefits.
To prevent injury, you should take precautions when exercising in cold, wet, or freezing conditions.
If you have a known history of cardiac disease, you should consult with your provider before starting any cold-weather cardio as this can put additional strain on your heart.
You should move your workout indoors if the temperatures drop below 0 degrees Fahrenheit or the wind chill reaches -17 degrees Fahrenheit.
What is cold-weather cardio?
Cold-weather cardio is when you participate in cardio exercises outside in cooler temperatures or wet or freezing cold conditions. Participating in a sport or workout outdoors in the cold is not a barrier, although some people may prefer not to be physically active in colder temperatures. Humans can adapt to large ranges of environmental temperatures through our thermoregulatory mechanisms. As temperatures drop, our body responds with several coping mechanisms to maintain our body heat.
Some measures can be taken to extend the lower critical temperature, allowing us to work out in the cold without our body perceiving the cold as a physiological stressor affecting thermoregulation. An example of this is when you don’t feel as cold exercising in the cold because you are wearing layers, so instead, you feel hot.
Benefits of cold-weather cardio
Participating in cold-weather cardio can offer many benefits. While precautions must be taken to avoid injury, finding an activity to do outside in the cold weather can provide health benefits and allow you to enjoy the outdoors during those months.
Boosts your immune system
Winter brings cold, flu, and respiratory viruses. Studies suggest that exercising regularly strengthens the immune system against COVID-19. Exercise helps fight off viruses and prevents you from getting sick.
Cardiac and metabolic health benefits
It is well known that exercise has many cardiovascular benefits. When exercising in cold weather, your heart works harder to regulate your body temperature.
Blood vessels narrow in your skin, fingers, and toes when cold to prevent more heat from being lost. When we exercise, our hearts beat faster, which increases blood flow to our working muscles. When our blood vessels constrict from the cold, our heart has to work even harder to pump blood throughout the body, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure.
Cold weather cardio can improve cardiac function in someone with no known cardiac disease but can increase the risk of cardiac events in someone with a known cardiac history. During the cold weather months, someone with cardiac disease may experience increased cardiac symptoms, such as increased angina or shortness of breath. If you have a known history of cardiac disease, you should always consult your physician before starting cold-weather cardio.
Maximum caloric burn
Your body works harder when working out in the cold because it has to keep your muscles, limbs, and organs warm. Harvard Health cited that when you exercise in cold weather, your white fat can turn into brown fat, especially in your thighs and abdomen. Brown fat's role is to generate heat, store energy, and boost metabolism.
A study done in 2014 on healthy men who were exposed to cold temperatures at night showed participants had a 42% increase in brown fat and a 10% increase in fat metabolic activity. Increased brown fat with cold temperatures was also associated with improved insulin sensitivity.
Cold-weather cardio can improve your endurance. You sweat less and expend less energy when you train in the cold. This allows you to exercise more efficiently.
Studies suggest that the ideal temperature to work out in the cold to improve endurance is 50–55 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, it is easier to breathe rapidly and exert yourself.
Mental health benefits
During the colder months, many people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can cause feelings of depression and low mood. This can happen because the days are short, so your body isn't getting enough light and endorphins. When you exercise, your body produces endorphins that can help boost your mood. Exercising outside during the cold weather months also helps replenish your vitamin D levels, which can also improve your mood.
Research shows that exercise decreases poor sleep and insomnia. Working out for at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise can improve sleep quality.
When you get exercise outside during the cold-weather months, the combination of fresh air, sunshine, and movement can help you unwind and promote deeper sleep. Exercise also has a stress-relieving effect, which can help fight insomnia.
Safety precautions can be taken to avoid muscle and joint strain in addition to frostbite and hypothermia. Besides wearing hats, mittens, and layers, keep in mind the following:
It is important to properly warm up your muscles before starting your workout. Dynamic stretches involve movement and increase blood flow to muscles, which helps prevent injuries. Dynamic stretches may include the following:
- Arm and leg circles
- Neck stretches and shoulder shrugs
- Toe taps
- High steps
- Quad pulls
The risk of dehydration is the same as working out in warm environments, but you won't feel as thirsty. When you are cold, your blood vessels constrict and decrease the blood flow to your extremities, allowing more blood to be drawn to your core to ensure adequate blood supply to your major organs. Vasoconstriction results in reduced secretion of the fluid-regulating hormone known as arginine vasopressin, leading to decreased thirst.
Working out in the cold still causes respiratory fluid loss and sweat, which may be less noticeable but still contributes to the loss of fluids. To prevent dehydration, consume 16 ounces of water for every hour of physical activity.
When exercising in cold environments, fueling your body before and after your workout is essential. Cold climates cause your body to fatigue faster without adequate fuel. Cold slows down your nervous system's ability to generate muscle contractions and requires more nutrients for your body's demands. The number of calories needed depends on the activity performed and the level of intensity during the workout.
After one hour of exercise, consuming a carbohydrate-rich snack like a peanut butter sandwich, orange slices, a banana, an energy bar, or a trail mix with dried fruit is an excellent idea. If you plan to work out the next day, you should consume a carb and protein-rich snack 30 to 60 minutes after completing your workout. This will replenish the glycogen stored in your muscles and facilitate muscle repair.
Some temperatures are considered too cold and unsafe to perform a workout outside.
Working out in these extreme temperatures increases your risk of frostbite. If it is too cold, frostbite and hypothermia are risks of working out in the cold. Hypothermia is a condition in which the body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. While the body can maintain a constant temperature, when exposed to extended cold, the autoregulation mechanism can become overwhelmed and cause the body to have a difficult time maintaining its temperature. Shivering is one way that the body maintains heat. As this mechanism fails and hypothermia progresses, it can cause confusion and heart abnormalities.
Frostbite can occur on the hands, feet, ears, or tip of the nose when exposed to extreme or extended cold temperatures and can cause permanent damage to the body. In cases of frostbite, nerves and tissue freeze at the site of injury.
What to wear
When you are working out in the cold, it is important to dress for the elements to help your body maintain its core temperature. Proper clothing and accessories can help your body conserve heat, keep your muscles warm, and decrease the risk of injury.
The bottom layer should be the thinnest and made of synthetic material that draws sweat away from your body. Using a 'moisture-wicking' layer as the base can help keep your clothes and body dry. Your next layer should be something heavier that can keep you insulated like a fleece jacket.
Make sure to cover up vulnerable parts at increased risk of frostbite, like your hands, feet, toes, ears, and nose. These areas may experience decreased blood flow as your body draws the blood to your core to preserve your major organs.
Exposure to cold temperatures can lead to dryness and cracking of your skin. To prevent this, make sure you moisturize your skin frequently. While we don’t usually think of needing sunscreen in the winter months, when it is sunny, the sun can reflect off of the skin and cause sunburn. Using sunscreen is an easy way to prevent this from happening.
Cold-weather cardio is an excellent way for you to get exercise while also getting outside and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Participating in cold-weather cardio can provide numerous health benefits. However, if you have any known health conditions, such as cardiac disease, you should consult your healthcare provider to determine if cold-weather cardio is right for you.
- National Library of Medicine. Practicing Sport in Cold Environments: Practical Recommendations to Improve Sport Performance and Reduce Negative Health Outcomes.
- National Institutes of Health. Cool Temperature Alters Human Fat and Metabolism.
- National Library of Medicine. Sports and environmental temperature: From warming-up to heating-up.
- National Library of Medicine. Physical exercise as a tool to help the immune system against COVID-19: an Integrative review of the current literature.
- Aston University. Benefits of Training in Cold Weather.
- Harvard Health Publishing. The wonders of winter workouts.
- Heart Matters. How does cold weather affect your heart?
- John Hopkins Medicine. Exercising for Better Sleep.