Cold Comfort: Working Out In A Winter Wonderland

"Does this snowsuit make me look fat?"

Photo: Abi Skipp

It's that time of year again when the sun becomes a mere smudge of color in a seemingly endless sky of gray and provides less warmth than Bill and Hillary at bedtime. Those of us who have the good sense that God gave us will have enough brain power to move our workouts indoors for the next few months by exercising at the gym, walking at the mall or bending, groveling and whimpering along to Frauline Jillian's 30 Day Shred DVD. And then there are the rest of us.

There are those hardcore athletes who insist on braving the wintery elements because they get stoked on that sort of challenge ("I love the smell of lip balm in the morning!") or, as is the case with me (a softcore slacker), I am a dog lover right up to the point of scarificing my own comfort for the sake of my furry little friend's exercise needs. Dogs need daily exercise...or else. Have you ever had your favorite chair's leg chewed by a dog with cabin fever? Or had him wipe out a hallway table because he couldn't get enough purchase on the hardwood floor to negotiate the corner when he got an attack of the zoomies? ("Zoomies", for the uninitiated - those of you who made a much smarter choice for a winter pet like a cat or goldfish or python - are when a dog hasn't had enough exercise and starts galloping at full speed around the house, demolishing everything in his path. The upside here is that your living room furniture can be completely rearranged without you lifting a finger provided you have an ample sized dog and prevailing westerly winds working in your favor.)

But back to humans and their outdoor winter activities. The athletes among us embrace the great outdoors - come hell or frozen water. The slackers are in it purely out of obligation to their pets and property preservation against the zoomies. I am a creature of comfort and would never willingly engage in anything that might compromise my current 98.6 degrees. I've worked darn hard to keep those degrees in line and hold onto them like grim death. But I am also a dog parent and will be spending more time than a reasonable person should outdoors this winter. I also like alpine and cross country skiing - more so for the cold storage benefits which I'm convinced counteract the ravages of age and gravity than the actual sporting nature of the activity. In any event, it makes sense to be prepared for exercising outdoors in the winter.

Paying attention to the very basics is a good place to start. Listen to the local weather reports to avoid getting caught in a proverbial Gilligan's Island "three hour tour." If temperatures are dangerously low, override that Ironman mentality and go jump rope in your basement - especially if the weather is further complicated by winds and/or some sort of precipitation. And if you're running or skiing, you'll be adding that much more wind to the equation. It's just not worth the risk of hypothermia, frostbite or an injury caused by slipping and falling. I've witnessed firsthand the chaos that can be caused when someone chooses to run or bike in the middle of a snowstorm on already treacherous streets. Dodging snow plows and fish-tailing school buses isn't as fun as maybe someone like Arnold Schwartzenegger could make it appear. Those are called "special effects" - not to be confused with "exercise". Keep yourselves safe and wait until the streets are cleared or find a more natural venue.

How to dress is another important aspect of winter exercise. Not that I consider myself much of a fashion maven, given my penchant for flannel and elastic waistbands, but what you wear in cold weather workouts can make a big difference in your comfort, as noted in this article. Ideally, you want three layers of clothing to protect yourself from the elements. The first layer that's closest to your skin shouldn't be skin tight and should be of a material that wicks moisture away from the skin, like polypropylene. You don't want a fabric that gets wet and stays wet against your skin.

The second layer of clothing should be for insulation, and fabrics such as wool or synthetics are good options. (Funny, I thought this is where the vaseline and plastic wrap came in but apparently I'm mistaken. Oh, sorry - that's "titillation", not "insulation".) The outer layer should be the protective shell for the whole outfit. Look for something that is wind- or water-proof and be sure to cover your hands and head. There are some nifty silver-thread gloves that can be worn under mittens to keep those vulnerable little digits nice and toasty. I use them for skiing and they work great. As to your head, it's a myth that 60% of your body heat escapes through it - it's just generally the last place people choose to cover up. Now let's get real here: You cannot be a serious winter athlete and worry about hat-hair at the same time. You must choose. Looks aren't everything - particularly in winter. Work on that personality your parents always told you was so important for the next few months. Anything that's not covered will cause you to lose heat.

And you're off!! There are a few pointers, too, for once you get started. You should be a little on the chilly side when you start your workout and the activity will gradually work up some heat. Starting off over-dressed will result in your heating up too fast. Weather that's too cold can diminish your performance as the optimal unscientific running temperature seems to be around 51 0r 52 degrees - what we would call "shorts and a tee shirt" weather here in New England.

Another variable that is still unclear is whether working out in the cold may cause more sprains or muscle pulls than more temperate weather. And people with heart problems need to check in with their doctor first before taking up any winter workouts. Body cooling can lower the threshold for the onset of angina. If you're relying on Team Cranky to give you the green light, then maybe fitness isn't your biggest problem.

Once you've finished your workout, get inside as quickly as possible or at least change into some dry clothes as your body will begin cooling once the activity portion of your program is over. You may find that you'll get used to the cold as time goes by (but who would want to? asks this total slacker). I will be straddling both the indoor and outdoor worlds this winter as I exercise the yellow lab who refuses to act his age and am drawn to the more civilized environment of constant climate control at my local YMCA.

Do any of you have plans to exercise outdoors this winter? And if so, what are your suggestions for keeping weather-proofed?

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