Warm Up to Winter Workouts

By Leslie Goldman

Be a super-fit snow angel with the right gear and a little smart planning.




Get Out There!

When the temperatures plummet and the sun makes only cameo appearances, the couch can seem infinitely more inviting than a jog around the block. But winter exercise does a body good: The hit of sunlight can boost your SAD mood and vitamin D levels, and it will make springtime bikini shopping more bearable. We bet you'll enjoy a few fun childhood flashbacks too. So swap your fleece-lined slippers for waterproof running shoes and head on out!

Warm It Up First

When Old Man Winter rears his ugly, icy head, warming up is even more crucial. Your body needs extra time to prepare for the frigid temps ahead, says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. "During the first six to 10 minutes of your workout, your respiratory and cardiovascular systems haven't caught up to your muscles yet," he explains. "A warm-up enables your lungs to start oxygenating your blood with the nutrients your muscles require." McCall suggests a 10-minute warm-up, starting indoors with some stretching, squats, and multidirectional lunges. Then head outside for a brisk walk, progressing to a slow jog. When stretching, pay extra attention to your calves-they're further away from your core, so they have less circulation and will be working differently to handle slippery sidewalks or slushy snow.

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Take a 3-Layer Dip

With winter exercise, it's like Katy Perry sings: "You're Hot, Then You're Cold." Too many layers and you'll overheat; too few and you'll freeze your glutes off. According to Catherine O'Brien, a research physiologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, the goal is to conserve heat while still letting steam escape, keeping you dry.

Start with a thin inner layer to wick moisture away from the skin. Avoid cotton, which soaks up sweat and holds it against your skin, accelerating heat loss; try a lightweight polyester or polypropylene fabric instead. Add an insulating middle layer of the same material, keeping it a little loose to trap insulating air between fibers. Top it all off with a wind- and waterproof outer shell that you can easily remove once you've warmed up. (Gore-Tex is a solid option.) Look for gear with venting, such as zippers in the armpit area, and windblocking technology. And remember, it's fine if you're a tad chilly for the first five to 10 minutes. "If you start with enough clothing to be warm in the beginning," O'Brien warns, "you'll get too hot."

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R-E-F-L-E-C-T

Be sure you're clad in bright colors and/or reflective materials. Research out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found pedestrians are three times more likely to be struck and killed by cars in the weeks after the fall time change, as they and drivers struggle to adapt to the changing light. The winter months are tricky too. Choose outer gear with reflective graphics on the front and back and shoes with reflective features. Wear reflective tape on your clothing to ensure you're seen in the chilly dark.

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Save Your Skin

Just because you've packed away your bikini doesn't mean you're safe from sun damage. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, snow reflects 80 percent of UV rays. When those hit unprotected skin, you can burn. UV radiation exposure increases along with altitude, making sunblock even more of a must for skiers and snowboarders.

Protect your skin with a water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, covering all exposed areas, including your face, neck, hands, and scalp. To ensure broad-spectrum UV coverage, check the labels for ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. Skiers and snowboarders should opt for goggles with UV protection, and everyone needs to slick on SPF lip balm.

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Shovel Smartly

According to Thomas Campbell, M.D., M.P.H., chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital emergency department, lifting 10 shovels' worth of snow in one minute consumes as much energy as climbing seven flights of stairs. Prepare for this undercover winter workout by warming up your hips and shoulders. Try Hula-hooping an imaginary hoop for 30-60 seconds in both directions, then throw a few soft cross-body punches. When shoveling, sink back into your hips as if you were doing a squat, pushing your butt back as you dig your shovel into the snow. Lift with your legs and hips, not your back, and follow through with your shoulders and arms, pushing your hips forward as you stand. Remember to change up your grip to stay balanced, prevent soreness, and avoid an overuse injury. Then feel free to skip your three-mile jog: An hour of shoveling burns almost 400 calories.

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Dote on Your Digits

It's easy for fingers and toes to get downright icy as you bike along the frozen lake or swoop down the slopes. That's because your body wants to conserve energy for your core, giving extremities the shivery shaft. O'Brien says mittens will keep hands toastier than gloves, although they don't allow for great dexterity (like gripping ski poles). To keep hands dry, you might opt for a thin synthetic liner to wick away sweat, then top with an insulating layer such as windblocking fleece.

Down below, the goal is to keep feet warm and dry. If you opt for thick, heavy socks (again, stay away from cotton), O'Brien advises going up a shoe size to avoid a too-tight fit. "Too much compression reduces socks' insulating effects and reduces blood flow to feet," she says. Prefer thinner socks? Then you really need an insulating, waterproof shoe or boot. Hikers or cross-country skiers may want to top their lower pant legs and shoes with gaiters to keep snow from sneaking in. Postworkout, dry footwear with a boot dryer.

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Give Frostbite the Cold Shoulder

Despite the cutesy name, frostbite is serious business: "The water in our bodies literally freezes," says Holly Benjamin, M.D., a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. The most common physical symptom is a blister, but by that time it's too late to prevent damage. If you notice any pain, decreased sensation, tingling, or numbness, head inside immediately and run warm water over the affected body part. As for frostbite prevention, Dr. Benjamin uses the acronym C.O.L.D.:

C-Cover yourself with a hat and gloves or mittens to preserve heat. O-Avoid overexertion. L-Layers. Think loose-fitting, lightweight, and water repellent. D-Stay dry. If you're sweating profusely or get snow in your shoes or boots, change into dry clothes and foot gear immediately.

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Take a Breather

For some of us, simply drawing a breath in subzero temps can be challenging. That's because cold, dry air is a risk factor for asthmatics, more likely to provoke the condition than warm, moist air. "Just as the cold dries and chaps your hands, it can also be drying to the lungs, causing tightening of the bronchial muscles," says Amy Burack, R.N., community asthma programs manager for Children's Hospital Boston. Talk with your doctor to see whether you should prepare for your winter workouts with a preventive inhaler or other medication. Pull a scarf or neck gaiter over your mouth to warm the air before you breathe it in, and monitor yourself for early warning signs of an impending asthma attack, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, dizziness, or chest pain. Having trouble? Head inside ASAP and treat with moist heat, like taking a steamy shower. Follow up with hot chocolate: doctor's orders!

Wet Your Appetite

Unlike the sweltering summer days of yore, when glasses of ice water couldn't come fast enough, it can be hard to gauge our hydration needs in the winter months. In fact, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that cold temperatures actually alter thirst sensation. We lose an appreciable amount of water while breathing outdoors in the chilly air, drying us out even more. But just because you're not soaked in sweat doesn't mean you don't need to rehydrate. Keep swigging water, or replenish your stores with wintry favorites like chai tea or sugar-free hot chocolate. Spending long periods of time on the slopes or cross-country skiing? Carry a water bottle or hydration pack with you.

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Slip and Slide Safely

If wouldn't be winter without a wipeout or two. If you're lucky, the worst bruise you'll get will be to your ego. More likely, you'll wind up with a sore bum, sprained wrists, or worse. Try to resist the natural tendency to break your fall with your hands and arms, which can lead to wrist fractures. (Easier said than done, we know!) "Try to rotate as you fall, onto your side," McCall says. "If you fall straight down on tailbone, you can break your sacrum, or tailbone." Your side offers more surface area to absorb the impact. To prevent falls, you may want to ditch your iPod and, in slick areas, concentrate on picking up and placing down your entire foot, instead of using the traditional heel-to-toe motion. If you do fall and hit your head and feel dizzy or momentarily lose your train of thought, head to the ER-you may have a concussion. Soreness is normal but any sharp pain could be a warning sign of a break.

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How Cold Is Too Cold?

Every year, competitors face 1,100+ miles of blinding snow and bone-chilling cold to win Iditarod, so, technically, it's never too cold. But it sure can feel that way. To figure out how you'll really feel out there, O'Brien says you must factor in not only temperature but wind speed and moisture (wet clothing accelerates heat loss). Before heading out for a run or hike, check the weather report for the temperature and wind speed. Then visit the National Weather Service's Windchill Chart (weather.gov/om/windchill/index.shtml) to determine whether there's a frostbite risk. For example, if it's 5°F with 30 mph winds, exposed skin can freeze within 30 minutes, so you'll need to dress accordingly. Try to start your outdoor workouts by heading into the wind, so it's at your back when you're on your way home and sweatier. Or check out the balmy climate of your local gym and wait for the cold spell to ease up.

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Tell Us What You Think: Baby, It's Cold Outside!

What gets cold first when you work out in winter? Your hands, feet, nose?

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