Too Cold to Exercise? Some Myths & Facts.

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*It’s so cold that the local flasher was caught describing himself*

Speaking of exposed skin and the cold, I often get asked, “Andy, when is it too cold to exercise outdoors?” I respond with, “Never.” The reaction starts with surprise, then disbelief, and finally, three concerns.  I will address these concerns with excerpts from a great January 2008 article from the New York Times, then I will give you some tips that you can use to whip Old Man Winter.

“But Andy, won’t the cold air hurt my lungs?”
“…lungs are not damaged by cold, said Kenneth Rundell, the director of respiratory research and the human physiology laboratory at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. No matter how cold the air is, by the time it reaches your lungs, it is body temperature, he explained. Some people complain that they get exercise-induced asthma from the cold. But that sort of irritation of the respiratory tract is caused by dryness, not cold, Rundell said. “Cold air just happens not to hold much water and is quite dry,” he said. You’d have the same effect exercising in air that was equally dry but warm.”
BOTTOM LINE: Your lungs will not know the difference!

“But Andy, I’m from the south. I cannot handle the cold.
“Another myth is that you have to acclimatize to cold, just as you do to heat. It’s true that peoples’ bodies adapt to hot weather and that adaptation makes people feel better when they exercise in the heat. It also improves performance. With heat adaptation, you sweat more profusely, your sweat is less salty and your blood volume increases. But exercise physiologists find only modest adaptation to cold.”
BOTTOM LINE: If you live in Alaska and go to Arkansas in July, be careful, but a southerner can go north with no problem.

“But Andy, won’t wearing enough clothes make me look like the Michelin Man?
“That means, Noakes said, that even in temperatures as low as 10 to minus-20 degrees, a runner probably needs to wear no more than a track suit, mittens or gloves and a hat.”
BOTTOM LINE: You are more likely to overdress.

Here is a list of cold weather clothing tips that are Andy Core tested and approved:

  • A light stocking cap large enough to cover your ears is a must.  Considering that more than 25% of your body’s heat loss escapes from your head, a good hat can go a long way in keeping your entire body warm.
  • A good set of gloves are worth their weight in gold. If it is very cold and the activity does not need the use of your fingers, as in working with small dials, shifting gears, etc., then mittens will do a better job of keeping your hands warm than fingered gloves.
  • Which are better? Thin or thick socks? Thin is usually better, but what really counts is that your toes have wiggle room.  Shoe packed too tight with socks reduce circulation, which drastically reduces your body’s ability to keep your feet warm.  Thinner socks made from synthetic-fibers that move the sweat away from your feet can keep your feet warm on the nastiest of days.
  • I usually wear a jacket for hikes, but opt for a wind breaker type vest when running or doing more vigorous activities.
  • It is easy to forget what you wore last season on that moderately windy, cloudy, 34 degree day. It is a good idea to keep a cold weather gear log for at least the first season or two. By taking a minute to write down what you wore during different temperatures and conditions and how will the combination performed will keep you from possibly painful mistakes and give you a head start on next season.

Most world record marathons have been run at temperatures in the mid to lower 40’s. What did these bone thin (read: no insulation!) runners typically wear during their record setting runs? Rarely more than a pair of skimpy shorts, a thin long sleeve t-shirt and light gloves.  Don’t the let cold spoil your winter workouts.  Instead, gear up, get out and have fun.  If you have questions about activity, clothing and the cold, post them in the comments section and I will answer ASAP.



Andy Core is a credentialed, award-winning thought leader on increasing employee engagement, productivity, and wellness motivation. His talent lies in helping hard-working, conscientious adults thrive at work and in their personal lives.

Andy also wrote the book Change Your Day, Not Your Life, a guide to sustained motivation and more productivity.

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