Follow these simple steps to prevent Old Man Winter from putting the kibosh on your outdoor walking workouts.
For most people, outdoor cardio exercise may be safer in cooler weather than on hot, humid days. Your body temperature rises as you walk, so when it’s sultry outside, you’re getting a double dose of heat. When it turns cold, on the other hand, you can regulate your internal temperature more easily. If you get too hot while you’re working out, just slow your pace, open your jacket, or take off your hat or gloves. You’ll solve the problem instantly.
Take Care When the Temp Drops
On chilly days, some of us need to take extra precautions before venturing out for cardio exercise. If you have any kind of heart problem, for example, you should consult your doctor before working out in the cold. As the air temperature drops, your body responds by constricting blood vessels, a process that pulls blood toward the trunk to feed your internal organs. When this happens, exercising puts extra strain on your heart as it tries to pump blood to your extremities.
Walking can relieve some of this strain by dilating blood vessels in your legs. The trick is to warm up slowly, to allow your body to adjust to the coldness. If you don’t warm up when it’s freezing outside, you could set yourself up for angina (severe chest pain) or a heart attack, says Roger Fielding, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health sciences at Boston University. That’s why people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.
When you warm up, do it indoors, before exposing your body to the cold air. This reduces the strain on your heart, because your blood vessels become dilated. You’ll feel better about going outside, too, because you’ll be warm already.
Cold-weather cardio exercise can also be risky for people with diabetes. Because walking in the cold burns more calories to increase warmth, it steps up the body’s demands for blood sugar (glucose). While this is a plus for most folks, it can cause those with diabetes to become hypoglycemic. If you have diabetes, ask your doctor for advice on managing your medications or your food intake to regulate your blood sugar level while you exercise.
You also need to be concerned about developing frostbite, as people with diabetes tend to have poor circulation in their extremities. Warm socks, gloves, and a hat are essential. If you experience loss of feeling in your feet or fingers while walking, head indoors as soon as you can and check whether your skin looks blue. This condition, called cyanosis, is the first sign of frostbite. You need to see your doctor immediately.
Frigid temperatures don’t mix well with asthma either. If you have this respiratory condition, you already know that inhaling cold air can trigger an attack. (In fact, some people experience asthma-related breathing problems only when they work out in cold weather.) Wearing a mask or scarf over your nose and mouth can help prevent an attack by warming up the air before it reaches your bronchial tubes. That way, the tubes are less likely to go into spasm. If covering your nose and mouth doesn’t help, consult your doctor for advice on adjusting your medication for cold-weather cardio exercise.
In fact, if you have any chronic health problem, you may want to check with your doctor before you do cardio exercise in the cold. He can tell you what precautions to take, if any. Or he may advise you to do your walking indoors.
Layers Keep Out the Cold
If you are heading outdoors, you need to dress for the chilly temperatures. Twenty years ago, that would have meant donning flannel underwear, a wool sweater, wool pants, a heavy wool coat, and thick wool socks to protect you from the cold. You’d be so bundled up that you could barely move.
These days, when you dress for wintry conditions, less is more. Thanks to an array of high-tech textiles, you can be warm and dry and still have freedom of movement. New fabrics insulate, block the wind, and wick away moisture without bulk or heaviness.
Still, dressing in layers is your best bet. That way, you can adjust your attire as you go, according to the weather and your level of activity. For the innermost layer (the one closest to your skin), choose light garments made from a synthetic fabric such as polypropylene, which wicks away perspiration from your body. That should be topped off with an insulating layer–a sweater, a sweatshirt, or a fleece pullover–for warmth. For the outermost layer, or shell, you want a garment that protects you from wind and rain. The fabric should be waterproof, as opposed to water-resistant (which is designed to keep you dry in a light mist). It should also be breathable–meaning that it allows water vapor to escape without actually letting water in.
The new synthetic fabrics do a better job of keeping you warm and dry than either wool or cotton. When you’re shopping for cold-weather cardio exercise wear, read clothing labels and try on a variety of garments to get a sense of what’s out there. You’ll be amazed at how comfortable you can be, even at extremely cold temperatures.
Footwear for Nasty Weather
To prepare your feet for winter walking, often all you need is a pair of walking shoes and a thick pair of socks. Then as you warm up, your feet warm up too. Just make sure that your shoes can accommodate your socks, or your feet will get cold from lack of circulation.
For keeping your feet toasty on bitterly cold days or for navigating sidewalks that are wet, icy, or slushy, you may want more rugged footwear. One place to look is in the hiking-shoe display of your sporting goods store. Hiking shoes have heavy-duty soles that grip better on sloppy or uneven terrain. They have elevated foot beds (because of the thickness of the soles), so your feet are higher than the water or slush that you’re walking through. They’re often waterproof, or at least water-resistant. And their tough exteriors stand up to the elements better than the average walking shoe.
A pair of hiking shoes made for trekking dirt trails should provide enough flexibility for fitness walking. And if you’re expecting to end up with a pair of big, clunky “stompers,” you’re in for a pleasant surprise. These days, you can choose from lots of low-cut styles that are very lightweight and comfortable. (To get a pair that fits well, check out our We Test It: Walking Shoes chart.)
Slippery Sidewalk Solution Slippery sidewalks keep many people indoors during the winter months. But you can venture outside safely, provided you have the right equipment. Stabilicers are detachable soles that can make you so surefooted that you’d feel safe walking across a river of ice. Built like sandals with Velcro straps, they slide over your walking shoes quite easily. The top of the sole grips your shoe, while the bottom, which is imbedded with steel cleats, digs into ice and hard snow. They’re perfect for winter walking or any slippery situation.
Stabilicers sell for about $40 a pair. You can buy them in many department stores and sporting goods stores as well as through mail-order catalogs.
Show Off Your Skin Smarts
When you’re walking in wintry conditions, protecting your skin is just as important as protecting your feet. Cold and wind are no kinder than heat and sun. All can be quite drying. And don’t let the chilly temperature fool you: The winter sun has ultraviolet rays that are strong enough to cause sunburn, age your skin, and increase your risk of skin cancer.
During the winter months, your hands and face are most vulnerable to the elements. You may wear gloves, only to have your hands get all sweaty as they warm up. But if you take off your gloves and expose your wet hands to the cold air, they may become chapped. That’s why you should wear two pairs of gloves: thick ones on top, thin ones underneath. Leave on the thick pair until your hands feel warm, then slip them off and wear only the thin pair to protect your skin.
To save your face from the effects of wind and cold, invest in a ski mask. A thin one made from silk might be most comfortable, but check what’s available. New, lightweight fabrics keep popping up everywhere.
If wearing a ski mask irritates your skin or obstructs your vision, you can go without one. But do wear a hat to keep body heat from escaping through the top of your head. To protect your face from the elements, first apply sunscreen and allow it to dry, then add a thick layer of a protective moisturizer, petroleum jelly, or hand cream. Choose a sunscreen that’s waterproof with an SPF of at least 15. Be sure to reapply both layers if you sweat a lot or wipe your face frequently.
If there’s snow on the ground, you need to be extra-vigilant about your sunscreen use. Snow reflects 85 percent of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays right back at you, nearly doubling your exposure. The average person gets about 19 hours of sun each week, regardless of the season. That exposure accumulates from routine activities, such as walking your dog and driving a car (UVA rays can penetrate most windows).
According to one dermatologist, if you don’t wear sunscreen between September and May, the damage to your skin could be the same as if you spent about eight straight summer weekends on the beach. Unfortunately, while 52 percent of Americans wear sunscreen in the summer, only 2 percent bother to slather it on in the winter. So here’s your chance to do something good for your skin.