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Winterize Your Workout

Hospital for Special Surgery Offers Seven Tips for Exercising Safely in the Cold

NEW YORK—January 7, 2008

The holidays have passed and people are starting to assess how much damage all of those festive holiday treats did to their waistlines. For those who are thinking of heading outside to work off that winter weight, there are a few things to take into consideration.

"Body size can affect cold tolerance," says Dr. Robert Marx, from the Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. "Short, small people have a large surface area-to-body mass ratio. This means that, relative to their size, they have a greater percentage of body in contact with the environment and will absorb cold or heat more quickly – smaller can be chillier. Fat lying under the skin doesn't transfer heat very well, so if you have a little 'extra padding' you can be thankful for some additional warmth."

As people begin to make good on their New Year's resolutions to exercise more, Dr. Marx has some tips for those who are headed out into the cold to get in shape:

  • Maximize your muscle! Muscle generates a lot of heat, provides thermal insulation and contributes to a high rate of metabolism at rest. A person with a significant amount of lean body mass has an advantage in the cold.


  • Dress in layers. The outer layer should repel wind and precipitation, while the inner layers provide additional warmth. Consider outer layers made from microfiber or other materials like Gore-Tex. Since heat is lost from your head and neck, a hat is critical. Also, consider pulling a thermal turtleneck, neck warmer or scarf up over your mouth to warm the air you breathe.


  • Don't wear cotton next to skin. As you start to sweat, cotton captures moisture and traps it next to your body. Your body loses heat four times faster when exposed to water. Shirts made out of wicking fabric, from companies such as Nike or Patagonia, are best for layering and will keep you drier and warmer when you sweat.


  • Decrease the intensity of your workout. As muscles cool they become weaker, which decreases your power and speed. Consider the intensity of your workout in the cold or count on using more energy to perform the same movements.


  • Winterize your workout routine. Wear heavier clothing and plan to warm up longer and more vigorously to heat up your body in the cold. If you are running, change your course so that you run out against the wind and return with the wind at your back. If possible, exercise in the afternoon when temperatures are at their highest.


  • Sometimes it's just too cold. With the proper clothing and workout adjustments, you can exercise in a cold climate. Be conscious of falling temperatures and weather conditions when considering outdoor activities. Early signs of hypothermia include weakness, shivering, fatigue, slurred speech, dizziness and confusion. If you experience any of these symptoms, move to a warm area immediately for first aid.


  • Don't wheeze. Exercise-induced bronchospasm is very common among people who do not have asthma. If you wheeze when you exercise in the cold, a "puffer" or bronchodilator prescribed by your doctor may allow you to perform and feel better.

"It's very important to take precautions when exercising outdoors in the cold, but it can also be a lot of fun if done properly," warns Dr. Marx. "Dress appropriately, always warm up first to prevent pulling muscles and know your limits."



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