On cold winter days, keeping your motivation up to get outside and walk can be more challenging. Yet no matter how difficult the first few steps might be, there are several benefits from exercising in the cold: You can get some much-needed sunshine, boost your immunity in the midst of cold and flu season and possibly even burn more calories than usual.
Whether the temperature is just below freezing or you’re walking through a winter wonderland, it helps to be aware of exactly how the weather affects your body — and dress accordingly.
Here, learn everything you need to know about what happens to your body during a winter walk, plus how to protect yourself from the cold:
HOW A WINTER WALK AFFECTS YOUR BODY
To fight the cold and keep your body temperature up during your winter walk, your body responds in multiple ways, says Adrienne Herrenbruck, PhD, a certified exercise physiologist based in El Paso, Texas. The first thing you’re likely to notice: Shivering and goosebumps, as your muscles quickly contract to create heat. To reduce the amount of heat lost from the surface of your skin as you work up a sweat, your blood vessels in your hands and feet constrict — which is why your fingers and toes can become especially cold and stiff.
As you walk, you might also feel your heart beating harder, since it’s working to keep you warm and support your workout. This is normal, and once you warm up, you’ll stop shivering and your heart will begin beating as it typically does to match the intensity of your workout, explains Herrenbruck.
HOW TO DRESS PROPERLY FOR COLD-WEATHER WALKS
If you take your winter walk to the extreme or don’t dress properly for the weather, you may put yourself at risk of developing hypothermia, or a dangerously low body temperature. If you notice early signs of hypothermia like a lack of coordination (Think: fumbling hands), confusion, continuous shivering or sleepiness, get inside to warm up and seek medical attention right away.
To stay warm and protect your body from chill-inducing moisture and wind, wear sweat-wicking layers before your walk, says Herrenbruck. Begin with a moisture-wicking base layer to soak up sweat and keep you dry. Opt for loose-fitting fabrics to trap in air and insulate you from the cold (and remember: you can always peel them off once you’ve warmed up). Finally, cover up with a wind- and water-resistant top layer like a lightweight jacket.
Since your head, hands and feet are likely to lose heat quickly during your winter walk, cover up with cold-weather accessories like fleece-lined gloves, a beanie and quick-dry wool socks. If you have a lung condition or you’re prone to coughing in the cold air, loosely cover your mouth and nose with a scarf.
To protect your skin from dry, cold air, apply lip balm and a moisturizing lotion, suggests Dr. Joshua Zeichner, dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. After your walk, try to keep your shower to 10 minutes or less with a warm (read: not piping hot) temperature to avoid stripping your skin of essential oils that help prevent it from drying out.
THE RIGHT SHOES
Opt for water-resistant or waterproof walking shoes to keep your feet as dry as possible. In order to avoid slips and falls on icy or snowy ground, choose shoes with plenty of grip, too, like hiking boots.