Exercise? In this weather? What you need to know before you do

See and be seen, layer up, keep hydrated, warm up cold muscles and tell someone where you’re going

It’s fine to resolve to get out and exercise more, but is it safe when it’s dark? How cold is too cold? I interviewed two sports medicine doctors and an exercise scientist, all of whom are also outdoor exercise enthusiasts, to get their thoughts.

The good news: Yes, you can continue exercising outdoors when the weather is chilly — to a point.

“We bike all winter long, and we bike in the dark and the cold,” said Dr Tom Fleeter, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor, referring to himself and his wife. But there are extra steps you should take to stay safe from the elements, oncoming traffic and other threats that ramp up in the winter months.

See and be seen

This may sound obvious, but it’s crucial to be able to see where you’re going and to ensure that others see you. “Just last week, I took care of a nurse who had broken her ankle jogging at five o’clock in the morning before it was light out,” Dr Fleeter said. She was running in a dark area, couldn’t see well and fell, he said.


If you are outdoors when it’s dark, Dr Fleeter recommended wearing a headlamp. Or you can use a hand-held flashlight or attach small lights to your shoes, suggested Dr Elan Goldwaser, a primary care sports medicine doctor. Keep in mind, though, that your visibility will still be limited because your light will cast shadows behind the obstacles you encounter. “You’ll see the branch, but you really won’t be able to see what’s behind it until you get to it,” Dr Goldwaser explained.

If you are exercising on a street, it’s also important that vehicles can see you, said Sara Terrell, an exercise scientist at Florida Southern College. Consider wearing neon colours — not black or navy blue — as well as reflective items that shine when headlights hit them. (One budget option: stick strips of reflective tape on your clothes, Terrell said.)

Consider placing reflective items on parts of your body that move a lot — perhaps your ankles or arms — to indicate to drivers that you’re moving, which will make them more cautious, she said.

Also, if you listen to music or a podcast, keep one earbud out to listen for traffic, Terrell advised. This is good advice whatever the season. Face oncoming traffic so that if a vehicle doesn’t see you, you can jump out of the way if needed. (But always cycle in the same direction as cars.)

Dress for the weather

If you’re exercising where it’s cold, the experts I interviewed suggested wearing three layers: an underlayer made of a synthetic, moisture-wicking material; a warmer mid-layer, perhaps made of fleece or wool; and a light outer shell that protects against wind and rain. Stay away from cotton, Terrell said, which absorbs water and sweat and cools your body, increasing your risk of hypothermia.

If it’s raining, consider wearing a hat with a visor so it’s easier for you to see, Terrell said. Hats or thin balaclavas can also help to keep you warm because a lot of heat is lost through the head, Fleeter added. And don’t forget gloves and warm (perhaps wool) socks. When your body is cold, blood moves away from your extremities to keep your core warm, so hands and feet (and ears) are vulnerable to frostbite, Terrell said.

Make sure you have the right shoes for the weather, too, Dr Goldwaser said. When it’s raining, snowing or icy, you’ll want shoes with prominent tread on the bottom to ensure good traction. (That said, if it’s quite icy or snowy out, you may well want to stay home, Dr Fleeter said.)

Prepare and nourish your body

When exercising in low temperatures, continue to hydrate, even if you don’t feel thirsty, Dr Fleeter said. When cold, the body releases a hormone called vasopressin that constricts blood vessels and also inhibits thirst, so you may not feel like you need to drink water even though you do, he explained. Also, when you exercise in the cold, your body burns extra calories to stay warm, so you may want to eat a bit more than usual to keep your energy up.

Be sure to stretch your muscles before an outdoor winter workout, Dr Goldwaser said, because muscles and ligaments are prone to tearing when they’re cold. He recommended dynamic stretches, which gently and briefly stretch various muscle groups. Dynamic stretches can be safer than static stretches, which you hold for longer periods of time, he said, because static stretches can stress cold muscles.

Whenever you exercise outdoors alone, you should tell someone where you’re going or bring a phone with you in case you get injured.

Know when to stay home

Never exercise outdoors during a thunderstorm, Dr Goldwaser said; the chance that you could be struck by lightning is small but significant enough to merit caution. Terrell suggested checking the weather forecast before an outdoor excursion to be sure that bad weather isn’t expected. If you do occasionally need to move your workout indoors, “have a plan B”, Terrell said, so that you can still get some exercise. I do barre videos in my basement, for instance.

Dr Fleeter said that you should never exercise outside when the temperature or windchill is very low. If you’re cycling, you’ll encounter wind, which will make you feel colder, Dr Fleeter said.

With so many new safety strategies in my toolbox, I’m excited to keep walking outside throughout the winter — but I won’t forgo my common sense, either. On especially nasty and frigid days, I’ll grit my teeth through plié squats instead. “Be smart about Mother Nature,” Terrell said. “She usually wins.” — This article originally appeared in the New York Times