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Cold Weather Workouts Can Be Dangerous: How to Stay Safe

While most people are less motivated to exercise in cold weather, experts stress the importance of sticking with your fitness routine to stay healthy and stave off the winter blues. Freezing temperatures can put off the most dedicated athletes and can even be dangerous unless you follow expert advice to help keep you motivated and safe.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin, exercise enthusiast and author of The Healthy Heart Miracle, warns that cold weather is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and lung complications.

“If you have heart or lung disease, you’re much more likely to die in cold weather than in hot weather,” he says. Mirkin says nearly 20% of North Americans have exercise-induced asthma, which is usually caused by breathing in cold, dry air, not exercise. “It affects 50% of cross-country skiers, skaters and elite hockey players.

To prevent health risks, always check with your doctor before exercising outdoors in cold weather, especially if you have heart disease, Mirkin says. “If you have heart disease, your doctor will likely recommend against exercising outdoors in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”

But for most healthy people, exercising in cold weather is safe, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you suffer from certain health conditions such as asthma, heart problems or Raynaud’s disease, consult your healthcare professional to find out if there are any special precautions you should take. Otherwise, follow these suggestions:

Check the weather conditions. A safe cold weather workout depends on temperature, wind and humidity, as well as how long you plan to be outdoors. Wind and cold together are the wind chill factor, and extreme temperatures can make exercising outdoors dangerous, even with the proper clothing. The risk of frostbite is less than 5% when the air temperature is above 5 degrees Fahrenheit. At wind chill levels below minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in 30 minutes or less, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dress in layers. Dressing too warmly is a mistake when exercising in cold weather. Exercise generates heat and can make you feel hotter than it actually is. So the key is to dress in layers that you can take off when you feel hot and allow the sweat to evaporate. Start with a synthetic material, like polypropylene, that wicks sweat away from your body. Add a layer of fleece or wool for insulation. Add a waterproof and breathable outer layer.

Protect your head, hands, feet and ears. A cold environment concentrates blood flow in the core of your body, leaving extremities vulnerable to frostbite. Wear a pair of glove liners made of an absorbent synthetic material under a thicker pair of gloves or mittens lined with wool or fleece. Choose training shoes a little larger than what you normally wear to allow for thick thermal socks or an extra pair of regular socks. Wear a hat to protect your head or a headband to cover your ears. Consider wearing a ski mask or scarf to cover your face in extremely cold weather.

• Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite injures the skin by freezing, especially on exposed skin. Watch for numbness, loss of sensation, or a tingling sensation. Get out of the cold immediately and slowly warm the affected area without rubbing. Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature and symptoms include intense chills, slurred speech, loss of coordination and fatigue. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect you are suffering from hypothermia.

Include safety gear and sunscreen. It can be dark when you exercise, so wear reflective gear. Use headlights and taillights when riding a bike and choose shoes that provide good traction on slippery or icy surfaces. Sunscreen is also important to protect your skin from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, as exercising in the snow or at high altitudes can lead to sunburn. Mayo Clinic experts recommend wearing goggles or dark glasses to protect your eyes from the glare of ice.

Hydrate. Staying hydrated is just as important during the winter months as it is when exercising in the summer. Drink water or sports drinks before, during and after your workout. You can become dehydrated in the cold due to sweating, breathing, the drying power of winter winds and increased urine production.

Stay safe this winter by being smart and closely monitoring how your body feels while exercising in cold weather. Shorten your training sessions in very cold weather and know when to come indoors to warm up.

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