On days when the temperature drops and the streets are coated with ice, many people decide that it’s the perfect day to curl up with a book and a hot tea. The last thing most people think of is exercise. However, exercise is important year-round, regardless of the outside temperature. Regular exercise can even help head off or shorten those winter bursts of runny noses, sore throats, and hacking coughs.

Staying healthy in the winter

Before exercising in the cold, do as much as possible to stay healthy during cold weather.

Everyone has been on the way out the door, only to be yelled at by a parent, spouse, or friend to “bundle up or you’ll catch a cold!” Colds and flus are caused by germs, so cold temperatures alone can’t make a person sick. However, cold temperatures are somewhat to blame for those runny noses and coughs. This is partly because everyone is inside when it’s cold outside. More people inside means that it’s easier for viruses to be passed from one person to another.

Another reason is that the cold temperatures dry out the air. Not only does this cause cracked lips and dry hands, but it makes it easier for viruses to spread. In fact, one study found that the transmission of illness among guinea pigs increased significantly as the humidity dropped.

It’s also possible that the rate of illness transfer increases in cold months because people don’t get enough vitamin D. This vitamin usually comes from the sun, but if people are hiding inside, it’s possible to develop a vitamin D deficiency. This in turn affects the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illness.

Yet another possible reason that cold temperatures go hand in hand with illness is vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of blood vessels to move blood away from the skin and closer to the warmer core of the body. The lessened blood flow to the extremities means that there is also a lessened number of white blood cells to protect the body from harm. If a dormant virus is already present somewhere, like in the nose, the lowered defenses mean that the virus can then take hold.

To stay healthy during cold snaps, there are a few easy steps to take:

  • Wash your hands and face
  • Don’t touch your face without first washing your hands
  • Ask a physician about taking vitamin D supplements
  • Consider bringing a humidifier into the home
  • Bundle up

Planning ahead 

Staying safe while exercising in the cold requires a little extra planning.

Check with a physician before starting any sort of outdoor exercise in the winter. Most people should have no trouble exercising outside, but some health conditions make it unsafe. Ask a physician if there is any foreseeable problem with you exercising in the cold weather, as well as if you should limit your outdoor exposure.

Before heading out for a brisk walk, check the weather. If the temperature or wind chill are extremely low, consider skipping the walk and staying in. It’s better to skip the exercise for a day or to find an indoor alternative, rather than push through the cold and end up too sick to exercise for a week or more.

Since exercise increases body heat, it can be difficult to predict how much to wear to stay comfortable. Layers work well for this. For the layer closest to the skin, consider wearing something that wicks away sweat. Then wear multiple layers on top, so that layers can be removed and added as needed to stay at a comfortable temperature. Also remember to protect the hands, neck, ears, and face. To keep feet warm, consider getting a pair of supportive boots (with good traction) that are a half size or a size too big, so that there’s room to wear thick socks.

Staying hydrated is also very important. If drinking cool or cold water doesn’t sound appealing, get a big, insulated water bottle and fill it with warm water. Keep in mind that caffeinated drinks, like coffee or teas, are natural diuretics, so they keep water moving through the body and aren’t the best when trying to stay hydrated. Also, don’t forgo the sunscreen just because the sun’s behind a layer of clouds.

It’s also easier to pull a muscle in the cold weather, so be sure to do a good warm-up and cool-down before and after a workout. A dynamic, or moving, warm-up is the best for raising the core temperature and getting the muscles loosened. Marching in place, walking up and down the hall while doing knee-lifts or butt-kicks, or flowing from one yoga pose to another are all great options for a dynamic warm-up. To cool down after a workout, do some basic, gentle stretches.

Indoor alternatives

When it’s just too cold to go outside, find an indoor alternative.

Sometimes a workout in the living room is a much better option than braving the cold. Here are several ideas for indoor exercise:

  • Get an exercise DVD
  • Find exercise videos online
  • Do yoga
  • Do tai chi
  • Dance
  • Play an exercise video game
  • Mop or vacuum the floors
  • Go to the mall and walk around

Staying active is good for the health. It can even boost the immune system, lowering the chance of a winter cold or flu. Whether it’s inside or outside, try to get in at least a 15 to 30 minute workout every day.

How do you stay active during the cold months?

Image by Richard Barrett-Small via Flickr

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