Exercise in Winter
Now that the weather is colder, you may notice your body feeling stiffer or more difficulty completing your exercise routine in the cold. Colder weather impacts your body in many ways, including muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. If these structures are not optimally functioning, you may be more prone to injury or strain. In this blog, you’ll learn about how the body responds to cold and tips to prevent cold-related injuries. We will answer the question, can I exercise outside in winter?
How does cold weather affect our bodies?
Cold causes vasoconstriction or narrowing of blood vessels. This slows the flow of blood throughout the body. While this may be helpful in some instances, such as decreasing swelling of an injured area with an ice pack, it can also make the body work harder to complete normal tasks. For example, the heart has to pump harder in a colder environment to keep adequate blood flow. Increased pumping causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase because it is more difficult to pump blood through narrowed vessels. Our body tries to keep our core temperature warm to keep our organs working properly. Blood flow gets directed away from the extremities (arms and legs) and towards the trunk to maintain optimal temperature.
Less blood flow to the extremities means our arm and leg muscles will perform less efficiently in the cold. It requires more effort to perform the same exercises in cold weather compared to in warmer weather. The muscle-tendon complex will have less elasticity and flexibility meaning they won’t tolerate stretch as far or as quickly. Muscles may also fatigue sooner from less blood flow and increased workload. A tired, overloaded muscle is more susceptible to tissue injury. Common cold-related injuries are strains, pulls, and tears especially if you’re participating in sports or exercises that require quick or power movements.
Dehydration can also contribute to injury but is less commonly thought of in cold weather. In the cold, we’re less likely to notice we’re getting dehydrated. We will continue to sweat and as we exhale our breath contains water droplets. Both of these lead to less fluid and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium) in the body. This may cause muscle cramps, muscle weakness, and overall decreased ability of the muscles to generate power. Our bodies are at risk for injury if we push beyond those limits.
Tips to Prevent Cold-Related Injury
A 5-10 minute warm-up targeting major muscle groups is helpful to ease the transition to your main exercise routine. Light stretches held for about 30-60 seconds can help promote increased elasticity and flexibility of muscles. Gentle range of motion of the joints can flush out inflammation build-up and lubricate the joints. Low impact cardio activities such as walking or a recumbent bike can also assist with increasing blood flow to the extremities.
Remember to drink water before, during, and after your exercises to replace fluid loss. You may want to consider a drink that is low in sugar but provides electrolyte replacement as well. A general guideline for daily water intake is half of your body weight in oz of water per day. Example: 150lb = 75 oz of water in a day.
Wear appropriate clothing
Consider the clothing fabric choices. Moisture-wicking materials will help manage sweating and loss of fluid. Typically, synthetic fibers such as polyester or nylon will help wick away moisture, whereas cotton absorbs sweat and becomes heavy and wet. Layering clothing is important for maintaining proper warmth but allows for you to adjust based on your temperature.
When it comes to exercising in the winter, the answer is yes, you can exercise. But, you need to be prepared, meaning dressing warmly, proper footwear, and adequate hydration.