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September 26, 2022

4 ways to safely exercise outdoors in the fall and winter

Daily Briefing

    The days are becoming "shorter, darker and cooler" amid the changing seasons. Melinda Wenner Moyer, writing for the New York Times, offers four suggestions to help you "stay safe from the elements, oncoming traffic and other threats" you may encounter while exercising outdoors in the fall and winter months.

    1. Make sure you are visible

    While it may seem "obvious," Moyer notes that "it's crucial to be able to see where you're going and to ensure that others see you" during an outdoor workout.

    Tom Fleeter, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor in Virginia, recommended wearing a headlamp if you exercise outdoors in the dark.

    Similarly, Elan Goldwaser, a primary care sports medicine physician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said you can also use a hand-held flashlight or fasten small lights to your shoes.

    When exercising on a street, Sara Terrell, an exercise scientist at Florida Southern College, noted that it is also important for vehicles to be able to see you. "Consider wearing neon colors—not black or navy blue—as well as reflective items that shine when headlights hit them," Moyer writes.  

    For people who listen to music or a podcast, Terrell advised keeping one earbud out to listen for any traffic.

    2. Dress appropriately

    According to Moyer, experts suggest wearing three layers during the colder months, which include "an underlayer made of a synthetic, moisture-wicking material; a warmer mid-layer, perhaps made of fleece or wool; and a light outer shell that protects against wind and precipitation."

    To lower your risk for hypothermia, Terrell suggests avoiding cotton, which absorbs sweat and moisture and cools your body.

    In the rain, Terrell suggests wearing a hat with a visor to improve your visibility. According to Fleeter, hats or thin balaclavas can also keep you from losing heat through your head.

    Experts also suggest wearing gloves and warm socks to keep your extremities safe from frostbite. In addition, Goldwaser emphasizes the importance of appropriate footwear. "When it's raining, snowing or icy, you'll want shoes with prominent tread on the bottom to ensure good traction," Moyer writes.

    3. Be prepared

    Whenever you are exercising in low temperatures, you must continue to hydrate, even when you don't feel thirsty, Fleeter said. In addition, he recommends consuming additional calories before exercising in the cold, citing the body's ability to burn extra calories to keep warm.

    Since muscles and ligaments are vulnerable to tearing when they get cold, Goldwaser recommends stretching your muscles properly before exercising in the cold.

    Terrell also noted that you should always tell someone where you are going or bring a phone any time you exercise outdoors alone. "If you're nervous about encountering animals or other risks, consider bringing pepper spray or bear spray with you, too, if it's legal where you live," Moyer adds.

    4. Stay home if conditions are unsafe

    According to Goldwaser, you should never exercise outdoors during a thunderstorm. "The chance that you could be struck by lightning is small but significant enough to merit caution," Moyer writes.

    Before an outdoor workout, Terrell suggested checking the weather forecast for inclement weather in the area. In case you have to move your workout indoors, "have a plan B," Terrell suggested. "I do barre videos in my basement, for instance," Moyer adds.

    Fleeter noted that you should never exercise outside if the temperature or windchill is below -10 degrees Fahrenheit, as the risk for frostbite is too high. He also advised against running whenever temperatures drop below 5 degrees. In addition, Fleeter recommended only biking outside when it is at least 15 degrees Fahrenheit, as biking through wind will make you feel colder.

    "With so many new safety strategies in my toolbox, I'm excited to keep walking outside throughout the winter—but I won't forgo my common sense, either," Moyer writes. "On especially nasty and frigid days, I'll grit my teeth through plié squats instead."

    "Be smart about Mother Nature," Terrell said. "She usually wins." (Moyer, New York Times, 9/22)

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