Can I exercise in extreme cold weather?

Exercise has many proven health benefits. Exercise should always be done safely, however, and be tailored to an individual's ability to tolerate certain conditions. Exercising in extreme cold can be uncomfortable, for example, due to the temperature of the air hitting your airways or even your sweat freezing into icicles on your face! If proper precautions are taken, exercising in extremely cold weather can often be done safely. Dressing in layers that allow for adequate ventilation, keeping extremities such as fingers, toes, the nose, and ears protected from chill and frostbite, and being careful of other dangers associated with extreme cold, such as ice, will allow you to stay safe while continuing to exercise. If you have chronic medical conditions, it is probably best to discuss with your doctor whether there are any other precautions you should take or if there are any reasons you should not exercise in extremely cold weather.

You can exercise in cold conditions if you take the proper precautions and do not have any medical conditions that contraindicate cold-weather exercise. When exercising in cold weather, it is important to wear appropriate attire, including a hat and gloves. Your attire should include several layers that can be removed as your temperature increases during exercise.  It is equally important to stay dry and wear proper footwear that repels moisture.

Working out in extremely cold weather is safe to do provided you have no underlying health conditions that would put you at risk. Extremely cold weather lowers your cardiac function and causes your blood vessels to constrict and decreases blood flow, so if you have a heart problem, try exercising in a warmer place in doors. If you have no existing conditions it’s important to prepare for the weather by dressing in sufficient layers and making sure to protect the skin against frostbite or damage from the cold. It’s important to remember your body will take longer to acclimate to the cold weather so take 5-10 minutes doing low level activity like walking before you move into more vigorous activity. It’s important to remember that, even though you’re not hot, and not sweating as much that you still need to stay hydrated so always bring water of fluids with you and continue to drink and hydrate throughout the work out as dehydration can occur even in cold weather. 
To exercise in extreme cold weather, you must take special precautions. Cold exposure can make outdoor activity uncomfortable or even dangerous for anyone unprepared for extreme weather. It's important to be aware of the early warning signs and symptoms of cold exposure and how to prevent problems.

Safety tips to consider when exercising in cold weather include:

Cover your head - keeps the heat locked in your body

Cover your mouth - warms the air before you breathe it

Stay Dry - damp clothing increases body heat loss

Keep Your Feet Dry - thick socks with insulating properties

Stay Hydrated - hydration helps to regulate body heat and decrease the risk of frostbite

Avoid Alcohol - Alchohol dilates blood vessels and increases heat loss

The first major concern with exercise in the extreme cold is hypothermia, which is when the body temperature drops below 98.6 degrees to levels that disrupt the ability for the body to function and self-regulate appropriately. The second is frostbite, which is damage to superficial tissue (generally fingertips, nose, ears and toes) due to exposure to extreme cold.

Though these are serious concerns, they can be avoided, even in extreme cold, if the appropriate steps are taken.

- Dress Appropriately: It is very important to dress in layers in order to keep heat from leaving the body. In zero to 10 degrees, wear three tops and a jacket. The layers closest to the skin should be a synthetic fabric, such as polypropylene and other moisture wicking / fast drying material, since it can be cold and still sweat.  The other layers help to trap heat. The jacket should be waterproof and wind resistant. If below zero - additional layers will likely be required.

- Rule of Thumb: Dress for temperatures 20 degrees warmer. If it's -20 degrees outside, dress as if you are going out in 0 degree weather. If it's 5 degrees outside, dress as if you are going out in 25 degree weather. 

- Appropriate tread on footwear is important to provide the traction necessary in extremely cold conditions. Spots of ice are not uncommon, so traction provides a level of safety.

- Let someone know you are going to run, what your route will be, and when you plan on being back.

- Cover areas where much heat is lost such as the head, neck, and mouth.

- Cover areas vulnerable to frostbite such as hands, nose, ears, and toes.

- Hydration: This may seem misplaced, but hydration is a huge part of systemic temperature regulation.

- The best way to make sure to avoid hypothermia and frostbite in the extreme cold is to … Stay Inside! Have some soup and hot cocoa (diet, of course, since you didn’t do your Run today).
Exercising in extreme cold weather conditions is generally not dangerous as long as the proper precautions are taken. The two most important factors to consider when venturing out into the cold, are frostbite and hypothermia.

Dressing appropriately for the conditions is extremely important. Many people actually overdress for exercise in the cold. Exercising increases body temperature and can actually make the temperature feel warmer than it really is. Overdressing for exercise can increase the risk of hypothermia especially if the clothes become damp, or wet, from sweating.

The first warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, loss of coordination, and difficulty speaking. In order to prevent hypothermia and make exercising in the cold as comfortable, enjoyable and safe as possible, follow the tips below:

Cover your Head and Neck

As much as half of the body’s heat can be lost through an uncovered head and neck in cold temperatures. Choose materials that will wick moisture away from your skin. Damp, or wet, material will significantly decrease body temperature.

Wear Several Layers

Wearing several layers of light clothing is preferable to one single thick layer of clothing. As body temperature increases throughout the workout, you can remove layers as needed.

Remain Dry

Moisture on the skin from wet clothing, perspiration, or precipitation will increase loss of body heat significantly.

Stay Hydrated

Remaining adequately hydrated is perhaps just as important in cold weather conditions as it is in the heat. The body’s ability to regulate body heat becomes extremely affected by inadequate hydration levels.

Eric Beard
Sports Medicine

If you are hearty enough to ask this question then you are probably healthy enough to handle it. Remember, with wind chill it can be colder than the thermostat reads. Your familiarity with the cold might play a factor as well. If you have been jogging outside for 10 years in all seasons and you live in Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska where the coldest temperature in the U.S. EVER was recorded (-80 degrees Fahrenheit on January 23rd, 1971) you can probably handle single digit temperatures pretty easily. If you have retried to Phoenix Arizona which has reached over 120 degrees on multiple occasions but are on a January ski vacation in may want to run on the treadmill inside if the mercury dips below 30.

To stay safe follow the basics like: dressing in layers, covering your head, hands, feet and mouth, keeping dry, and drinking enough fluids. People commonly get dehydrated when they are out in the cold because they don't drink as much as when they are hot.

What should you be careful of? is your body's attempt to warm up. If you can't stop shivering, get out of the cold.

Frostbite can be trouble too, be aware of these symptoms; pain, burning, numbness/tingling, skin issues like "hard and white" skin, itchy skin, blisters or discolorations such as grayish-yellow. If you experience any of these, get out of the cold. Brrrrrrrr....

Lastly, remember exercise basics like warming up and cooling down. You heart will be glad you did.

Have fun Polar Bears!

Aaron Nelson
Sports Medicine
Exercising in extreme cold can be just as taxing on the body as exercising in extreme heat. We always hear about heat exhaustion and heat stroke, because it is much more common to exercise in warmer conditions and most sporting events occur in warmer conditions, with the exception of mid/late season football. It is very important to make sure you wear plenty of warm clothes, including hat and gloves. Because your body will be heavily insulated, it is important to gradually shed some layers so that you don't have the body overheat in its insulated environment. Check your heart rate frequently to make sure you aren't putting too much stress on your heart. When working in extreme cold, you battle both sides of the fence, conditions such as frost bite and overheating due to layers of clothing. Try to keep a stable temperature environment and stop exercising if you feel any symptoms or complications from the workout. It is also important to check with your physician to make sure you don't have any conditions that should proclude you from this type of exercise environment.
Dr. Mike Clark, DPT
Exercising in extreme cold weather is acceptable given the proper precautions, attire and preparations. However, research in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology has shown that extreme cold temperatures lower the ischemic threshold in patients with Coronary Artery Disease (CAD).  Clients with CAD, exertional angina or myocardial ischemia should talk with their doctor prior to exercise in extreme cold.
Dress in layers, allowing you flexibility to adjust to the temperatures. Often when individuals dress for the cold, they overdress, causing too much heat, leading to excessive sweating. This in turn can decrease body temperatures, leading to hypothermia. In addition, avoid cotton as it retains moisture which can make you colder. Wear a synthetic fabric, polypropylene, as recommended by the Mayo Clinic, which wicks away moisture. Nike’s Dri-FIT apparel line is great for providing base layer protection. Before you begin a cold weather exercise regime, acclimate to the environment, spending 5-10 minutes with low to moderate continuous exercise, building up to longer and more intense workout sessions. Several factors like age, sex, body composition, exercise, diet, fitness and health modify our responses to cold. Your body needs to break in the thermal sensations to cold first, followed by the cardiovascular, metabolic and endocrinological responses. These adaptations over time will help you adjust to the cold temperatures but tend to disappear without continuous exposure. A common mistake among exercisers is not drinking enough fluids, especially when they do not feel hot. Many people are not aware of their thirst when they are in colder temperatures and not sweating as much. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids during and after your exercise sessions. Even adding in beverages containing electrolytes for high intensity workouts is advised. According to research from GSSI Sport Science Library “Dehydration resulting from the failure to adequately replace fluids during exercise can lead to impaired heat dissipation, which can elevate body core temperature and increase strain on the cardiovascular system."
Lastly, be aware of the signs of hypothermia. Drowsiness, confusion, clumsiness, shallow breathing and a weak pulse are some of the signs you should be aware of that indicate your body temperature has dropped too low to maintain vital life functions.
Wendy Batts
Your body is amazing and can adjust to weather conditions very quickly. If you are dressed appropriately, well hydrated and know when enough is enough, then yes, you can exercise in extreme cold weather. Your body temperature can adjust to extreme temperatures as long as you can keep your body dry by layering with the right clothing. People assume that the more clothes you have on, the better. This is not exactly true because you may tend to get hot and then start to sweat. You want to wear clothing that will “pull” sweat away from your body so your clothes don’t get wet and heavy.  Base layers with a dri-fit type material are better for the clothes closest to your skin. You can then layer up from there with what you feel is appropriate for your exercise session. 

Also, begin outdoor activity in extreme temperatures gradually to allow your body to adapt to the environment. This will help avoid injury and poor physiological responses, which can lead to injuries. Frostbite, hypothermia and hyperthermia are to common injuries that can occur when people are not prepared for extreme conditions. Frostbite occurs when you leave your extremities exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time. Hypothermia occurs over time and is when your body temperature falls below normal temperature and continues to drop, causing extreme shivering, confusion, cold skin and/or drowsiness. Hyperthermia happens when the body produces or absorbs more heat than it can expend. To avoid possible injuries such as these, be sure to cover all areas of your body, drink a lot of fluids and work with the wind if possible (not against it)!

Continue Learning about Types Of Exercise

Americans Urged to Move More, Sit Less
Americans Urged to Move More, Sit Less
Americans need to move more and sit less. That’s been the clear-cut message from government health officials since they issued physical activity guide...
Read More
Why is it important to use a full range of motion when exercising?
Int'l Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)Int'l Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)
Using a full range of motion when exercising is very important for developing and maintaining good f...
More Answers
How do I perform a single leg medicine ball chest pass?
National Academy of Sports MedicineNational Academy of Sports Medicine
Face a wall with your feet pointed straight ahead and placed shoulder-width apart. Balance on on...
More Answers
How Do I Perform a 1-Hand Medicine Ball Push-Up?
How Do I Perform a 1-Hand Medicine Ball Push-Up?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.