Exercising outdoors, even in extreme cold, can be done and is even enjoyable if you use a little common sense. Think of winter activities as exercising in less heat than during warmer temperatures. Your body usually produces so much heat from exercise that you are likely to get and stay quite warm. However, you can also lose heat quite quickly due to the cold. Staying warm during exercise in the cold is really about balancing how active you are, wearing the right clothing, and taking precautions.
Most people have no problem breathing very cold air during exercise. This includes very heavy exercise such as cross-country skiing. The nose and airways are very good at warming the air. Even very cold air is warmed to nearly normal body temperature by the time it reaches the more delicate lungs.
The main exception may be asthma. Cold air can trigger asthmatic events for some people. The same is true for those who have what is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. Here, heavy exercise can make muscles around the airways react, so breathing becomes more difficult. Wear a light bandana, scarf or mask to help warm and add moisture to cold air before it reaches your lungs. Another way to reduce the chance of breathing problems is to slowly warm up before beginning heavier exercise. Not only is this better for your body as a whole, it also helps your lungs get used to the extra work that they are being asked to do.
Wind chill is the biggest risk when exercising in the winter. Minus 10 C in calm air may not feel too cold, but 0 C in a strong wind can feel extremely cold. Wind greatly increases the rate of heat loss from your skin. Since you lose body heat much faster, you must take extra care.
You can avoid or lower the risk of wind chill in the following simple ways.
The chart below adapted from ontarioweather.com is a quick reference of temperatures you may experience. You can also refer to Environment Canada weather links: Wind Chill Calculator
Winter Hazards: Canada’s Wind Chill Index
Air Temperature (°C)
|0 to -10
|-10 to -25
|-25 to -45
|-45 to -59
Warning Level *
|-60 and colder
|* warning levels vary by province and territory|
Apart from getting too cold, the other big danger from wind chill is the risk of frostnip and frostbite, where your skin cells actually freeze. This is very painful and may cause permanent damage. Frostbite usually happens first in fingers and toes, and places exposed to a lot of wind like the nose, ears, and cheeks. Keep these parts of your body covered well and check on them when you are outdoors. The first sign of frostnip is usually a lot of pain, along with the area being very red and itchy. Normally, frostnip does not have a major risk of long-term damage. However, a bad case of frostnip can make it easier for that area to be frostnipped or frostbitten in future.
It is essential to be careful in the cold and avoid frostbite. In this condition, the skin becomes very pale due to lack of blood flow. Next, it becomes waxy and numb. Eventually the skin blackens as cells die. If you have any signs of frostbite, get treated in a hospital as soon as possible.
By using common sense, you can safely continue to enjoy outdoor exercise year-round.