There are many physical and mental benefits to outdoor exercise. Exercising outside performing functional activities provides bone strengthening, balancing, natural movement cardio challenges. Being outside in fresh air is proven to ward off depression and stress. Sunshine provides bone protective and immune boosting vitamin D and prevents seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Plants and trees expire immune-boosting chemicals. Natural light makes you happier, and being outdoors has been proven to improve concentration.
Getting outside on a cold day, however, requires some forethought. Dressing for warmth can be tricky if you are exercising and know your body heat will rise. Wearing removable layers of moisture-wicking fabric is always recommended. Appropriate footwear is also beneficial; waterproof hiking or snow boots with adequate traction will prevent slippage and wet feet. Winter sports such as paddle tennis or jogging require shoes with good treads and proper fit. Attachable traction cleats are inexpensive and worth the investment to prevent slip and falls.
Runners, walkers and hikers need to accommodate to or avoid icy surfaces; uneven and slippery ground leads to shorter strides and more uncertain foot placement. This destabilizes your ankles and knees; the most commonly injured joints in running. Not only can a twist result in a sprained ankle or knee, ligament and or cartilage tears can also result. During a fall, finger, wrist and shoulder fractures are also possible. Back problems can result or reactivate as you sway forwards or back to correct balance. The wider stance that is typical of propelling yourself over icy surfaces can lead to iliotibial band syndrome or hip bursitis with symptoms of outer thigh and leg pain.
For those who enjoy a snow shovel challenge, take precautions. While shoveling is extreme cardio and provides an excellent calorie burn, it is a common cause of back injuries and cardiac events. Shoveling heavy snow increases heart attack risk by 16% due to four factors: the extra strain on the upper body, the cold weather, severe exertion, and dehydration. Dehydration is common while exercising in the cold as your thirst signals are decreased. Dehydration raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes as the blood becomes thicker and harder to pump. Drinking before, during and after is key to health. Shovel in less than 1 hour time periods. Consider pushing rather than lifting snow and never twist and throw to reduce back injury risks. Stop if you are feeling pain of any kind especially back pain shooting down the leg. If you develop severe arm pain, chest pain or heaviness, shortness of breath, or a feeling of doom, call 911. Women are more likely to have less classic symptoms of heart attack including abdominal pressure, nausea, sweating and fatigue.
There are additional health hazards associated with the elements of winter. Head injuries are possible due to extreme falls or when wind suddenly brings down heavy snow-covered branches. Falling backwards on black ice can send you landing on your rear leading to spine, pelvic or tailbone fractures. Asthma is made worse in the cold, and any lingering upper respiratory germs can worsen into serious infections. If you have a cold, as most adults do 2-3 times from September to April, listen to your body: if you have chest symptoms, a productive cough, a fever, or fatigue, rest is recommended to prevent bronchitis, pneumonia, or worsening illness.
Frostbite, when severe, can result in amputation. Frostbite risk is greatest if temperature is below 10 degrees or wind chill below 5 (see chart). Symptoms include numbness, itching, stinging, blue discoloration and hardening of the skin. Frostnip, in which the skin turns white and numb is a pre-frostbite stage. Frostnip is painful as the skin thaws and a body signal that it is time to come in from the cold.
If you have any of these symptoms go inside immediately but avoid applying direct heat and don’t rub the area. Instead, use warm water or body heat and stay out of the cold. People who have previously had frostbite, children, the elderly and alcohol and tobacco users are more at risk. Wearing layers and avoiding wetness from snow or sweat also prevents frostbite.
While many of these factors seem scary, with precaution, exercising in the cold is energizing and enjoyable with benefits that extend beyond the gym. You also burn a few more calories in cold than in warm environments. Just check the weather before you go out; consider staying in if the temperature is below 0 or wind chill -18 as frostbite can occur in 30 minutes or less. If the temperature is above 35, you will probably be pretty comfortable and safe from falling. Take a cell phone if you are going out alone in case you get lost or injured. Consider getting out for a 20 minute walk, especially if the sun is out. You will find yourself instantly happier and healthier with a new way to keep your New Year’s fitness resolutions!!