By Dr. Jack Rutherford
As the weather cools off, exercisers are sometimes inclined to move indoors or even put their exercise programs on the shelf. Studies show that as many as one-third of Americans describe themselves as inactive during the cold months.
Working out in cold weather can be invigorating but it comes with some needed precautions. In the cold, the heart’s arteries constrict and blood pressure rises, increasing the potential for a heart attack. Studies show that in people who are unaccustomed to regular physical activity, the risk of heart attack increases substantially. This is partly because there is often sudden physical exertion, such as when shoveling snow. It is therefore important to pace yourself and listen to your body. If you experience any unusual symptoms during or after physical exertion, stop the activity and seek medical attention immediately. Typical symptoms of a heart attack include pain in the center of the chest, sometimes extending to one or both arms, the back, neck or jaw, shortness of breath, nausea, pale or bluish gray coloring of the skin, and faintness. Symptoms can last more than a few minutes or they may go away and then return later. Heart attack victims typically describe the feelings of pressure, squeezing and pain beforehand. Other warning signs include cold sweats, lightheadedness and dizziness.
If you do work out in cold weather, it is important to stay well hydrated even though you may not feel thirsty. The body perspires in the cold just as it does during warmer weather and staying hydrated will allow the heart to distribute needed blood to the arms and legs while maintaining good heart circulation. Experts suggest consuming one half your body weight in ounces of fluid daily. Most of this intake should be water but food and beverages that contain fluids (such as fruits and vegetables) also count, unless they contain caffeine.
The other major consideration for cold weather exercising is how to dress. Use layers so that as the body heats up, you can discard a layer and still not become cold. Use a shell or outer layer that blocks the wind chill and an inner layer that wicks perspiration from the skin to the next layer. If there is snow on the ground, wearing rubber soled shoes will keep the slipping and sliding to a minimum.
With the extra clothes, you may find workouts to be more strenuous and demanding at first. It is therefore important to gradually work up your exercise duration over time.