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Should We Exercise in the Cold?

The short answer is, absolutely! While many traditional warm weather activities are no longer available to us, there are still a number of great ways to get your exercise and outdoor time in; especially here in Northern Michigan!  In this article we will cover some of the benefits to exercising in the cold and the special considerations that need to be taken into account to make sure you are staying safe during these cold months.

Benefits of Exercising in the Cold

Improved Regulation

One interesting benefit to cold weather workouts is that your body has an overall easier time regulating body temperature. What does that mean for your exercise? It means you can actually go farther and even burn more calories!

Mood and Immune Booster

Exercise is a proven mood-booster, which is especially important during these winter months when many are prone to mood changes due to cold weather and grey skies. Winter exercise will get your body moving and allow you to enjoy the small amount of sunlight that we get in the winters here.  Sunlight is necessary for the production of Vitamin D, which is another mood booster and helps to strengthen the immune system.  According to the CDC, even a few minutes a day of winter exercise can help boost immunity and reduce the risk of viral and bacterial infections.

Extra Fat Burning

Studies have also found that winter exercise has been shown to turn regular fat into the calorie-burning brown fat.  Brown fat is often called the “good fat” because it burns calories instead of storing them.

The Risks and Red Flags to be Aware of with Exercising in the Cold

You’ve probably heard of our two major red flags for cold weather exercise, frostbite and hypothermia. Below are details on how these manifest and what to do if they occur.


Frostbite is the freezing of tissue due to prolonged exposure to cold. It is usually found on the cheeks, ears, face, fingers and toes, because these tend to be the most exposed body parts to the elements. When the body becomes exposed to cold weather, the blood vessels in your extremities constrict in order to keep blood centrally located, keeping your vital organs warm.  Therefore, the distal fingers and toes are most susceptible to frostbite, and can often be ignored when in the middle of a workout.  Early warning signs of this include loss of feeling, numbness, or a stinging sensation.  If this occurs, warm that area slowly and do not rub it, as it may damage the tissue underneath.  Seek medical attention if symptoms do not go back to normal after warming


Hypothermia is a lowering of the overall body temperature due to prolonged exposure to cold weather. Hypothermia symptoms include intense shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination and fatigue.  This is a medical emergency and should be transferred to the appropriate facility.  It may seem the risk of hypothermia during a workout is low due to the heat produced in exercise, but with exercise comes sweating, which can dampen the clothing around the body, and cause very fast heat loss if the exercise should come to a stop.

How to decrease those risks!

The first step to decrease risk while exercising outside is to research and plan ahead! Check the weather for both temperature and wind chill to gauge the actual temperature.  Plan where you are going to be exercising, and how long it would take to get to somewhere warm if there happened to be a problem. If you can, notify someone of your workout plans and when you plan to return. It’s always a good idea to carry a phone in case you find yourself in an emergency situation.

Wear layers that you can shed as you get into your workout, as dressing too warmly increases sweat production which can pull heat from the body quickly. Start with a base layer of a synthetic material (like polypropylene) that wicks sweat away from the body, add a layer of wool or fleece to insulate, then finish it off with a waterproof and breathable outer layer.

Finally, make sure to protect your head, hands, feet and face.  When it’s cold, the body pulls more blood to the core and can put these areas at higher risk.  These are just a few steps that you can put into place to create a safe winter workout experience.  Whether snowboarding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, walking the dog, or having a snowball fight with the kids, winter exercise is an excellent way to keep you happy and healthy through the long winter months!