Cold-Weather Exercise Risks

January 22, 2018

As temperatures drop, new risks arise. Many prefer to exercise outdoors and have developed their routines around it. If you don’t want to take things indoors when it starts getting cold, here are some risks to be aware of to ensure you have a proactive workout and most importantly, stay safe!


Simply put, dehydration occurs when your body doesn’t have the needed amount of fluids. It’s commonly thought of as a risk mainly to those in hotter climates but can affect people in a wide range of temperatures. The human body naturally produces sweat when temperatures increase to help cool itself. When exercise causes us to start sweating, it’s important to replenish the fluids lost. Doing so ensures our bodies can function properly. For every hour of exercise, the average person sweats between 27.4 to 47.3 ounces (8.8 to 1.4 liters) of fluid.

Dehydration can vary from mild to severe, with severe cases needing immediate medical attention. The Food and Nutrition Board recommends 11 cups of water per day for an adult female and 15 cups of water per day for an adult male. Note that these are total amounts from both food and beverages. Many have found success in following the “8×8” rule, which consists of drinking 8, 8oz. glasses of water per day. Athletes and others prone to more fluid loss should increase their fluid intake proportionally with fluid loss.

Knowing the signs of dehydration can save you or someone else’s life. Indicators of mild dehydration include:

  • Thirst
  • Dry/sticky mouth
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea

Indicators of severe dehydration include:

  • Not urinating or very dark yellow (sometimes amber) urine
  • Dry, shriveled skin
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing

If you start experiencing the signs of dehydration, act quickly to replace the lost fluids. Drinks containing electrolytes such as juices and sports drink are a great way to rehydrate. Be sure to pace intake and don’t chug large volumes at once. Avoid drinks like coffee, tea, and soda as they are diuretics and can worsen the dehydration.



Not to be confused with hyperthermia, which is an elevated body temperature, hypothermia occurs when our body temperature drops to a dangerous degree. Exercising in cold temperatures increases the risk of hypothermia due to exposure and body sweat. Heat is lost more rapidly through liquid than air. Consequently, clothing that’s become saturated with sweat will cause heat loss much more quickly than dry clothing. With more cold-related deaths occurring in the U.S. than heat-related, hypothermia is a risk that should not be underestimated. Indications of hypothermia include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Shivering
  • Loss of coordination
  • Weak pulse
  • Drowsiness

If you start experiencing signs of hypothermia seek a warm dry location. Wet clothing should be removed as soon as possible. Layering blankets is a great way to warm up safely. Try to minimize your movement as much as possible. If available, drink a warm beverage. Avoid applying direct heat as it can damage skin and cause further complications.

Dressing appropriately is the best way to prevent hypothermia. The best way to dress for exercising in cold weather is by layering your clothing. By wearing multiple layers, you can remove and add clothing as needed. Use the following tips to ensure you’re dressed appropriately.

  • Use synthetic materials that wick moisture away from the body as a base layer. These materials are typically very lightweight and available in a wide variety of styles and designs.
  • Next, you’ll need insulation. Fleece makes a great choice for those looking for something warm without a lot of weight. For colder temperatures, you may need a heavier material or to add another layer of insulation.
  • Use water resistant and wind resistant materials for the outer layer. Remember that heat is lost much more quickly through wet clothing.
  • Wear a hat. It will help retain body heat as well as maintain comfort. Masks and scarves are also great additions to help protect your face and neck.
  • Wear gloves. No one enjoys the pain of frozen fingers. Protect them from frostbite and other hazards like falling.
  • Wear appropriate socks. With today’s selection of moisture-wicking fabrics, there’s no reason to wear that old pair of cotton socks. Fabrics like cotton hold moisture and we know that moisture + cold = rapid heat loss. Treat your feet right and you’ll be happy you did.



Winter brings more than just colder temperatures. As the days become shorter, it’s important to consider visibility whenever you’re around traffic. This is especially true for activities like cycling and jogging. Some athletic clothing manufacturers have begun using reflective materials in clothing and even shoes, but that alone may not be enough in low-light conditions. Per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015 a pedestrian was injured every 7.5 minutes on average with 74% of pedestrian fatalities occurring at night.

Luckily there are several ways to improve your visibility. First, opt for brightly colored clothing. Wearing dark colors at night will only make you harder to see. Once you’ve layered up in something bright, look to add something reflective. This is commonly done in the form of a belt or vest. There are a wide variety of options for this. Explore the different styles to find what best fits your needs. Remember that it needs to be visible from the front and back. The more reflective surface area, the better your odds are for being seen. Another option to consider is wearing a light of some type. Plenty of modern battery operated lights are compact and light enough to be worn without notice and there are numerous models available for bicycles. Headlamps are an inexpensive method as well. The strobe function should be a primary feature of these lights. The flashing light helps to quickly draw attention and combos great with a reflective belt or vest. Remember that the most important thing is to be seen.


Slick Surfaces

As the Southeast has seen over the past few weeks, no one seems to be safe from winter storms. Granted, it may not be a common risk for many living in warmer climates, but when the temperature drops things can quickly go sideways. Snow and ice buildups can make traversing common areas rather difficult. Ice formations can sometimes be hard to see and are more likely to form in exposed areas such as bridges. Be mindful of your footing. When we try to catch ourselves during a fall we can easily sprain or fracture a wrist or arm.

Salt is commonly used to clear roadways and sidewalks but poses its own risks as well. Similar to gravel, salt buildups can become slick. Both cyclists and pedestrians should be on the lookout patches of salt, especially when making turns or ascending/descending hills.



While this isn’t an exhaustive list of cold-weather exercise risks, it should help you stay safe while staying active. A little bit of caution and preparation will go a long way. Be sure to check our blog for regular updates and articles on living a healthier life.

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