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With gyms closed or at limited capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, stay safe while exercising outside during the cold winter months with these expert tips. Getty Images
  • COVID-19 restrictions have kept many gyms closed or at limited capacity, forcing more people to exercise outside in the cold.
  • For most people, exercising in low temperatures is perfectly safe, though there are some precautions to keep in mind, particularly for people with underlying health conditions.
  • Most workouts that are done outside in warmer months can be safely done in the winter, though proper measures to stay safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19 should be taken.

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With COVID-19 restrictions keeping many gyms closed or at limited capacity, the bitter cold temperatures that come in the dead of winter may affect many people’s workout routines.

While taking a jog or bike ride may have been a pleasant way to burn calories in the spring and fall, the idea of gearing up to work up a sweat in the chilly winter air might not be as appealing.

But experts said that for most people, it’s perfectly safe to exercise outside in the colder temperatures.

Still, depending on your fitness level and if you’re not used to working out in the cold, there are some things to keep in mind.

People with certain underlying health conditions might also need to be cautious before working up a sweat in the cold.

Dr. Michael Fredericson, sports medicine physician at Stanford Health Care, said that when it comes to health benefits, working out in colder temperatures isn’t much different than exercising when it’s warm.

“It’s just good to stay active and exercise no matter what the weather is,” he told Healthline.

Still, there may be some advantages. Some studies suggest exposure to cold temperatures while exercising causes our metabolism to pick up and activates our brown fat — or, the “good fat” that breaks down fat to maintain body temperature, said Heather Milton, MS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center.

This may help the body burn through calories in a more efficient way.

Another benefit to exercising in cooler temperatures is that our body doesn’t have to work so hard to cool itself down.

“This means less blood flow is directed towards the skin,” Milton said. “When less blood flow is circulating to the skin, more is directed towards working muscles. We also tend to lose less water in sweat, so our blood volume does not dip during longer workouts as it would in hot environments.”

For most people, going for a run around their neighborhood or at a local park is usually the easiest way to get in physical activity outside.

But any type of exercise that’s done in warmer temperatures is also safe in the cold.

When asked what forms of exercise she would recommend people do in the cold weather, Milton said: “Anything, (except maybe swimming).”

She recommends: “HIIT workouts, cycling, calisthenics, boot camp, dance workouts, you name it. Just be sure to do a full warmup to ensure your muscles are warm, and your core temperature is elevated before getting into higher intensity exercises.”

If you’re in a climate with snow, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, and even sledding can be fun ways to work up a sweat.

Outdoor group exercises are safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, experts said, as long as proper physical distancing measures are taken.

“Make sure you’re keeping at least a 6-feet distance from other people, ideally more,” Fredericson said.

The key to dressing for exercise in the cold is layers.

“The base layer should wick away sweat,” said Katie Lawton, an exercise physiologist in Sports Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “Cotton absorbs sweat and is not a good option for a base layer. If performing an activity or sport like running where you may sweat more, a synthetic fabric base layer is a good option.”

For a second layer, Fredericson recommends fleece or wool to help keep in the warmth.

“If it’s raining or snowing, some type of light waterproof jacket can be helpful,” he said. “But layering is important because as you warm up, you may want to shed some of those, so have something you can tie around your waist.”

If it’s particularly cold, you may also want to wear a hat, gloves, and scarf.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises everyone to wear a mask and maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance while working out either indoors or outdoors.

In addition to preventing the spread of COVID-19, Milton said wearing masks comes with other benefits, especially during the winter months.

“Masks come in handy nowadays, as it can cover your nose and cheeks, keeping your face warm and safe from the cold,” she said. “They can also aid in warming the air you breathe in, which is helpful to your airways.”

People with certain underlying health conditions need to take certain precautions when exercising outside during the winter.

“For people with asthma, cold weather can be harder to adjust to,” Milton said. “The cold air causes a reaction of the airways to constrict.”

This can make it difficult to breathe and even trigger an asthma attack.

“A slow and gradual warmup is recommended to avoid this,” Milton added.

And again, a scarf or mask over the face not only helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, but can also be beneficial in warming the air you breathe in.

People with asthma should also remember to carry their inhaler when exercising in case of an asthma attack.

Some cold weather activities, particularly shoveling snow, may be risky for certain people.

“Shoveling snow is actually a really vigorous exercise,” Fredericson said. “If you’re used to exercising, then it’s probably fine, but if you’re someone who doesn’t exercise a lot and you start shoveling snow, it can actually trigger a heart attack.”

Older adults and people with heart disease are at an increased risk of heart attack from shoveling snow. They should get clearance from their doctor before engaging in such strenuous activity or leave the shoveling to someone else, Fredericson said.

For most healthy people, the biggest concern that comes with exercising in the cold is the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

“We’re talking extremely cold temperatures here,” Fredericson said. “Generally, if the wind chill factor gets below 17 or 18 degrees Fahrenheit, you should probably hold off.”

At this temperature, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes.

Hypothermia, which is when the body’s temperature is abnormally low, is more likely to occur at very cold temperatures but can happen even at cool temperatures above 40°F if a person becomes chilled by sweat, rain, or water, according to the CDC.

“Use common sense,” Fredericson said. “Make sure you can feel your fingers and toes. If you really start to shiver, try to get out of the cold. You want to be able to carry on a conversation. If you’re so cold you can’t even talk or you start to feel confused, that’s not a good sign.”

Staying hydrated is also important in the cold weather.

“Though we may need slightly less fluids in the winter, we do still lose fluids during exercise due to breathing, sweating under your base layer, and the drying effects of the air, and thus must maintain our fluid intake,” Milton said.

And don’t forget the sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing sunscreen when you’re outside. This is especially important in the winter if there’s a lot of snow on the ground due to the intensity of the reflection of the sun, Milton said.

Finally, watch out for ice.

“If you go run or bike early in the morning, be sure to pay attention to this factor, as a slide or fall would not only hurt more on frozen ground, but also could lead to injury,” Milton said.

All things considered, experts said it’s important that people know they shouldn’t be afraid to work out in the cold.

“Particularly as it relates to COVID-19, light to moderate exercise is very healthy for your immune system and may actually give you protection against COVID-19 or any type of flu or cold during the winter season,” Fredericson said.

“Additionally, your risk for disease transmission outside is so much lower,” he said. “So if you can’t exercise indoors or you just like exercising outdoors, I would encourage people to do that using proper precautions.”