Winter Workout Myths—Busted

Why bundling up isn't always best, plus more facts about exercising in cold weather

workout myths: woman running outside pic

Image: Corbis

Lacing up your sneakers for your first run in the crisp autumn air is always exhilarating. A few months later, however, dropping temperatures can easily zap your runner’s high. But there’s no need to hiberante from January through March! If you know the facts, you can tweak your workout for frigid weather and avoid winter weight gain. Here, Matthew Berenc, director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, separates fact from fiction to dispel common winter workout myths.

Myth #1: Exercising in the cold is bad for you
“In short, it’s just not true,” says Berenc. “If you’re prepared—meaning you have the right gear and program—it can be just as safe and effective as working out inside or during the summer.” Worried about catching the sniffles? That’s a longstanding myth—exercising in cold weather won’t cause a cold. Plus, outdoor winter workouts boost Vitamin D production (thanks to sun exposure), help your body adjust to the temperature change, and provide a mental health and mood boost.

For more workout tips, read The Men's Health Big Book of 15-Minute Workouts.

Myth #2: The more you bundle up, the better
Turns out, less is more. “If you put on too many layers you’ll start to sweat more and this can lead to catching a chill,” says Berenc. “Layer from the inside out—make sure your torso is well-covered and then lighten up on the arms and legs.” Layers should be easily removable while you exercise. Opt for moisture-wicking materials instead of cotton, which stays wet and sticks to your skin.

Myth #3: You don’t need as much sunscreen in the winter
Don't fall prey to common sun-safety myths. “No matter the time of year, UV radiation from the sun is equally strong,” says Berenc. “Don’t be fooled by clouds either; the sun’s rays pass through them.” Sunscreen is especially crucial when you’re exercising at a higher elevation. The closer you are to the sun, the more you absorb its rays, so be extra diligent when you hit the slopes. Applying sunscreen will also protect your skin from windburn. 

Myth #4: Longer warm-ups aren’t necessary
“A warm-up literally warms the muscles and gets them ready for exercise,” says Berenc. “This takes a little longer in the winter.” He recommends spending 10 to 15 minutes preparing for your activity. The best warm-up routines? Those that mimic the movements that you’re going to do in your workout.

Myth #5: It’s okay to drink less water
“At a minimum you should maintain the same level of water intake in the winter as you do in the summer, if not increase it,” Berenc says. Why? It’s just as important for your body to stay hydrated during a cold-weather workout, and since the winter months bring drier air, moisture also gets sucked out of your skin, causing dryness and irritation.

Myth #6: Frostbite and hypothermia aren’t a real threat
“They’re very realistic concerns, and the best way to prevent them is to be prepared for your workout,” says Berenc. “Wear the right clothes that won’t leave you soggy from either sweat or snow and rain.” The most common sites of frostbite are the hands, feet, nose, cheeks, and ears, since they’re usually the most exposed and have smaller blood vessels, so they get colder faster. Be sure to cover up these areas and if they start to go numb, get inside and warm up immediately. You can also prevent hypothermia by staying dry, covered, and warm. You should change into dry clothes as soon as possible if yours start to feel wet.

Myth #7: Your regular gear will do 
You might need to upgrade your wardrobe if you work out in the ice and snow. Wear sneakers or boots with good traction to limit slipping and sliding, and make sure your footwear is also water resistant. “If you’re going to be running or exercising through snow, the last thing you want are soggy, cold feet,” Berenc says. Another winter must-have: shades. Snow can act as a reflector for the sun, so wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and reduce strain.

Myth #8: If you have certain health conditions, you should stay inside
Not necessarily. If you have asthma, a heart condition, or diabetes, check with your doctor to see if winter workouts are safe for you. “Provided that you’re cleared, there are steps you can take to help manage the cold,” says Berenc. A warm-up is especially important, as is starting out slow, he says.

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