What Are the Benefits of Working Out in the Cold? (Plus Safety Tips)
As the holiday season approaches, many people who exercise outdoors struggle with working out in the cold, but they don’t have to.
Is it bad to work out in cold weather? As long as you take some precautions, working out in the cold — such as walking, running or cycling — is actually pretty beneficial.
Exercising in cold weather can lead to improvements in endurance and cardiovascular function, and just like most exercise, it can also boost your mood and mental health.
Benefits of Working Out in the Cold
“Cold weather” means different things to different people, but generally it’s considered to be cold outside when it becomes uncomfortable to stay outdoors for more than short periods of time. This discomfort is due to drastic differences between the temperature outside and the internal temperature of the human body.
While being outside in cold weather might require you to wear a jacket or coat to avoid feeling chilly, it also has some perks to offer that being at room temperature doesn’t. The colder your environment, the harder your body has to work to maintain homeostasis (or balance), which means it uses energy in the process and also benefits metabolically in certain ways.
Let’s look closer at how working out in the cold benefits nearly your entire body:
1. Burn Extras Calories
Why is it harder to exercise in the cold? One reason is because your body needs to work harder to perform in chilly climates, mostly because it requires extra generation of heat to keep your muscles, organs and limbs warm.
Anytime your body is exposed to a form a “stress,” which can include drastic temperature or elevation changes as well as exercise itself, your need for energy increases. This causes your muscles to break down glycogen faster (from carbohydrates) in order to fuel themselves.
Brown fat is the type of body fat that helps regulate body temperature. When we’re outside in the cold, brown fat burns energy (calories) in order to heat our bodies and increase body temperature, in the process helping give the metabolisms a bit of a boost.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “studies show that exercising in cold weather can transform white fat, specifically belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning brown fat.” Because working out in the cold activates brown fat more than exercising at room temperature does, it can potentially help efforts to lose weight.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism even found that cold weather workouts can burn more calories compared to workouts done in more comfortable temperatures.
2. Can Help Improve Endurance
Working out in the heat can cause you to become exhausted more easily, since it increases sweating and your heart rate more rapidly. On the other hand, exercising in the cold can allow you to work out for longer, which may mean you can build endurance and stamina more easily.
What’s the ideal temperature to train at, or compete in, in order to maximize endurance? Research suggests it’s about 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, since this is the temp that feels most comfortable in which to breath rapidly and exert yourself.
However, it’s safe to train at even colder temps too. (See below for more info on working out in different temperatures.)
3. Fights Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder
Exercising outside during the winter where you’re exposed to sunlight is thought to be one effective strategy for helping ward off seasonal affective disorder, a type of mood disorder/depression that tends to affect people during the dark winter months.
Sunlight and exercise both have a positive impact on your mood for several reasons, including because they help release more “feel good” chemicals, including serotonin and endorphins.
Another cognitive/mental health perk of exercising in cold weather? Some studies have demonstrated that people who exercise in the cold tend to experience improvements in their decision making, focus and memory.
Other research shows that exercise in general is useful for decreasing anxiety and improving concentration.
4. Can Help You Sleep Better
The combination of sunlight exposure during the daytime, fresh air and physical activity can help you unwind and sleep more deeply at night. Sunlight is important for regulating your circadian rhythm, also called your “internal clock,” which makes you feel sleepy enough at night to drift off and alert enough in the morning to wake up.
The stress-relieving effects of exercise, whether done indoors or outdoors, are also important for fighting insomnia.
5. Supports Heart and Metabolic Health
Nearly all types of exercise benefit your cardiovascular system and can help promote insulin sensitivity and better blood sugar management.
Getting regular physical activity, such as walking briskly or jogging outdoors, has been linked to lowered risk for common health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood glucose levels.
How to Exercise in Cold Weather (Best Exercises)
What are the best exercises to do in cold weather?
These include “cardio” or aerobic exercises like running, fast walking, jogging or cycling (assuming the wind isn’t too uncomfortable), plus ice skating, playing hockey, snowshoeing, or downhill skiing and snowboarding. You can also do sprint workouts outside or even do a circuit workout or weight training.
Ready to take your workout outdoors, even if it’s the middle of the winter? Here’s what you need to know:
1. Warm Up With Dynamic Stretches
Before exercising in cold weather, be sure to properly warm up, since inactive and cold muscles and joints are more prone to injuries.
Instead of doing traditional “static stretches,” in which you hold a fixed position, do dynamic forms of stretching instead. Dynamic stretching involves motion, which boosts circulation and blood flow to your muscles and helps protect against injuries.
Here are some examples of dynamic stretches to do for several minutes before working out in the cold:
- Wide arm and leg circles (aim for about 20 of each)
- Shoulder and neck shrugs
- Toe taps
- High steps (bringing your knees high toward your chest)
- Air squats
- Lunges (side, back and forward)
- Quad pulls
2. Stay Hydrated
Believe it or not, you’re more prone to becoming dehydrated in cold weather because your thirst sensation is reduced, your body uses water to warm you and you lose water due to breathing out moist air that causes respiratory fluid loss.
Be sure to drink water before, during and after your workout. If you prefer, drink something warm beforehand, such as hot tea, which can help make the cold feel initially more comfortable.
3. Optimize Nutrient Intake Before and After
Eating a healthy diet that includes protein and complex carbs is important for exercise no matter the temperature or time of year. It’s important to optimize your nutrient intake before and after cold weather training because your muscles need protein and carbs to stay fueled and repair themselves and grow back stronger.
Pre-workout, eat a meal rich in carbs and protein about one to three hours before exercising. (Avoid anything too heavy right before exercise, which might cause a stomachache.)
If you’re active for more than one hour and doing intense exercise, you may opt to have a carbohydrate-rich snack mid-workout to keep you energized. Following a tough workout, have protein and carbs within one to two hours to replenish glycogen stores and aid in muscle recovery.
What to Wear
When the temp drops outside, it’s important to wear the right gear to help keep your body’s core temperature warm. Clothing and accessories that help conserve body heat can keep your muscles warmed up so you feel less stiff or tight.
Here are some guidelines regarding what to wear when exercising in the cold:
Layer clothing — Your bottom layer should ideally be something thin that is made of synthetic material (such as polyester, polypropylene and nylon), which draws sweat away from your body. This leaves you less damp and chilly than if you wear cotton. Look for clothing marked as “moisture-wicking.” Over your thin layer, add something heavier that will keep you insulated, such as a sweatshirt, jacket or fleece.
Cover up vulnerable body parts — Your hands, feet, toes, ears and tip of your nose are most vulnerable to becoming very cold and even developing frostbite if it’s freezing outside. This happens because your body conserves energy and priorities warming your core, rather than your extremities.
Depending on how cold it is, cover up with a hat, gloves, face mask, scarf or goggles so less skin is exposed. Be sure to wear warm socks, but make sure they are comfortable depending on the kind of shoes you’re wearing. (You’ll need thinner socks if wearing sneakers compared to shoe shoes or ski boots, which can fit wool or thick cotton socks.)
If your hands get extra cold, try wearing thin glove liners under thicker gloves that are lined with fleece.
Don’t forget to protect your skin — Moisturize your skin consistently in the winter to keep water locked in and prevent dryness and chapping.
While some sunlight during the winter can be highly beneficial, too much can still burn your skin even if it’s chilly outside. Apply sunscreen if you’re spending lots of time outside, especially if you’re near snow, which can reflect sunlight — for example, if skiing or snowboarding.
Most dermatologists recommend wearing 30 SPF+ if in the sun longer than about 20 to 30 minutes, plus lip balm with sunscreen.
How Cold Is Too Cold?
What temperature is too cold to exercise outside? The ideal temperature for exercising outdoors in the cold is somewhere in the range of the 30s to 50s F.
That said, the American College of Sports Medicine has stated that “exercise can be performed safely in most cold-weather environments without incurring cold-weather injuries…the wind-chill temperature index can be used to estimate the relative risk of frostbite and heightened surveillance of exercisers should be used at wind-chill temperatures below -27 degrees C (-18 degrees F).”
In other words, it seems safe for most adults to work out in very cold temps, even those dropping into the single digits in degrees Fahrenheit. However, it’s crucial to wear the right gear once the temp drops below the 30s, and look out for any signs of cold-related injury (such as numbness, clumsiness and very red, cold skin).
Be cautious about avoiding frostbite when the temperature drops below 5 degrees F and the wind blows more than 20 miles per hour, which increases the risk for cold-related injuries.
Risks and Side Effects
Exercising in cold weather increases the risk of hypothermia, which is caused by a low body temperature. This is a serious condition that can cause damage to the skin and other tissues, so it’s impotent to take it seriously.
Seek emergency help from a professional immediately if you develop hypothermia symptoms, such as:
- numbness and tingling accompanies by redness/purple skin
- intense shivering
- extreme fatigue
- slurred speech
- loss of coordination
People with existing health conditions such as asthma or heart problems are more at risk for exercise-related side effects when working out in the cold. Be cautious about pushing yourself too hard if you have any history of trouble breathing, chest pains, etc.
- Working out in the cold is beneficial because it causes your body to work hard to maintain homeostasis (or balance). The colder your environment, the harder your body has to work to do this, which means it uses energy in the process and also benefits you metabolically in certain ways.
- Perks of exercising outdoors in the winter include improvements in your metabolism, fat-burning, mood, endurance, heart health and sleep.
- It’s usually safe to exercise outside even if the temperature falls into the single digits, but be sure to wear layers, moisture-wicking clothing, gloves, warm socks and a hat.
- Stop if you feel intense tingling, numbness or other signs of hypothermia when working out in the cold. Also be sure to stay hydrated and eat before and after working out in the cold for the best results.