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Exercising outdoors in cold weather

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By Dr. Anne Fabiny, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch

I’m a real advocate for exercising outdoors in all types of weather. It’s a great way to get the health benefits of physical activity and experience the changing seasons at the same time. And I never feel as invigorated as I do when I finish a winter run. If you aren’t a runner, a walk might have the same effect.

Fall and winter are great times to be outdoors in New England. The air quality is usually better than in the late spring and summer because pollen and mold counts are down. Of course, the temperature is also lower, and I’m someone who is often cold. But that’s not a good excuse to stay inside.

I’ve found that careful layering is key. In the chilliest weather, I’ll have three layers on my chest and two on my legs. I have some jerseys with cuffs that have holes for my thumbs; they keep my sleeves from coming out of my mittens. I’ll wear a headband, a hood, and a hat. My approach is to start off feeling warm and peel layers off as I warm up. My mittens are usually the first layer I shed!

I wear a regular pair of running socks because my feet always stay warm. However, if you get cold feet exercising in the winter, there is an enormous array of socks to keep your toes warm and chemical foot warmers for your shoes.

If you tend to stay warmer, you may not need as many layers as I do. It’s worth a visit to a sports clothing store to find the mix of layers that works for you. Many fabrics are engineered to wick away perspiration and keep you warm without weighing you down. I’ve just resigned myself to looking silly—and unrecognizable—in my winter weather get-up.

I’ve been running in the winter for 17 years and have fallen on ice only once. Some of my friends keep from falling by using crampons, devices you can add to the soles of your shoes or boots to provide traction on snow and ice. There are several types made of lightweight aluminum and rubber that can stretch to fit your shoes or boots.

The winter sun can damage your skin, especially if it’s reflecting off the snow. You’ll need to use sunscreen on the exposed areas of your skin and sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare. You may also need a thick layer of skin cream and lip balm to prevent chapping on the coldest days. I never go out in the winter without protecting my lips.

I tend to cough and get a little wheezy when I exercise in cold, dry air. This condition is called exercise-induced bronchospasm in people who don’t have asthma and exercise-induced asthma in people who have been diagnosed with asthma. If you have either, using an inhaled medication like albuterol about 30 minutes before you go out should keep your airways open. That’s what I use, and it keeps me from wheezing and coughing.

I also have Raynaud’s phenomenon when I’m sitting still in the cold. However, I don’t get Raynaud’s when I’m exercising outdoors, because my heart is beating fast enough to keep up the blood supply in my fingers and toes. If you get Raynaud’s, it’s good to know that if you start out with warm hands and feet they will only get warmer as you exercise.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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