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Home    For Our Community    HealthSense    Podcasts    Exercising or playing sports in the cold
Exercising or playing sports in the cold


People who are committed to exercising sometimes find it difficult to continue their exercise routines during winter months. Dr. Shannon Woods explains the effect of cold on the body and how to prepare for sports or exercise outdoors. His tips include:

  1. Wear dry, waterproof shoes.
  2. Avoid cotton socks and go for wool instead.
  3. Dress in layers – wear a base layer that warms your skin, followed by a breathable layer that wicks away sweat.
  4. Wear mittens instead of gloves.
  5. Stay hydrated, but don't overdo it.
  6. Keep your head and ears covered.
  7. Watch for symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia.

Yvette Williams: People who are committed to exercising sometimes find it difficult to continue their exercise routines during winter months. Is it safe to exercise in cold weather? What are some safety tips to keep in mind? Dr. Shannon Woods specializes in sports medicine at CoxHealth. Thank you for joining us Dr. Woods.

Shannon Woods: Thank you.

YW: How do our bodies respond to cold temperatures during exercise?

SW: Exercising outside can take place in a variety of different temperatures. However, when the temperature begins to drop, there’s certain precautions that need to be made in order to maintain that we have adequate safety. The cold can affect an individual at varying rates. It depends on what the temperature is outside, the wind chill and whether or not you’re exercising in wet conditions or dry conditions. Things can begin to go downhill very rapidly within a few minutes if the temperature starts dropping below freezing.

YW: Does cold affect younger people and older people differently?

SW: It certainly does. Younger individuals tend to be smaller children for example. They are more likely to suffer from cold injuries just because they don’t have as much internal mass, so therefore they have less ability to regulate their temperatures, especially at their fingertips or at their toes, and their nose and ears for example. They’re more likely to suffer from frostbite in that situation, but they’re also more likely to suffer from hypothermia due to this inability to regulate their temperature. In older individuals, they sometimes can also suffer or be more likely to suffer from cold related injuries. This most likely is due to other medical illnesses they may be suffering from that predispose them to injury, but also because of medications that would predispose them to cold injury.

YW: You mentioned frostbite. What is that and what are the symptoms?

SW: Frostbite is actual freezing of our tissues, whether that be skin, the underlying soft tissue, muscle or even bone. This most often occurs in fingers, toes, nose or ears – these are the most likely locations. But, depending on the temperature, it can even affect our arms, our legs, depending upon how bad it gets. What you’ll probably notice at first with frostbite is that there are different degrees, just like there are different degrees of burns. First degree, you may begin to notice some numbness, some tingling, you may notice increasing pain. You may begin to notice some discoloration, white splotches or splotchiness of the skin. With second degree, you start to develop blisters, the pain can become more intense. As you move into third degree, you actually lose sensation and you develop no pain, but the skin becomes white, all uniform, and almost kind of rubbery. The blisters also become worse and the blood flow actually shuts down completely. If you look at vascular studies in those individuals, they have absolutely no blood flow to those extremities whenever it gets that bad.

YW: So you really need to pay attention to what your body and your fingers and your nose are doing when you’re out in the cold, right?

SW: You do need to be aware, yes, and we certainly can exercise outside but you have to be more cognizant and think about what you’re going to be wearing, how long you’re going to be outside and try to prevent those injuries. Depending on the temperature outside, the lower temperature, the wetter the conditions or the more wind that is involved, the greater the likelihood of suffering cold injuries.

YW: You said hypothermia. What is that and what are those symptoms?

SW: Hypothermia is where there is a decrease in the core body temperature, so our absolute temperature. Normally we’re at 98.6 or 98.7 Fahrenheit, but with exposure to cold, that actually decreases. As our temperature decreases by as little as 3 degrees, we start to suffer some effects. What you may notice is that once we start getting closer to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, patients may start to develop amnesia, difficulty remembering, difficulty concentrating. They will often then develop racing heartbeats and become more fatigued or apathetic where they don’t want to perform exercise any longer. As the temperature drops even more as we start getting close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, individuals will start becoming ataxic, where they don’t want to even move at all and they just sit down. Sometimes they become so confused, they’ll even start taking off their clothes whenever they get that cold, as an abnormal response. From there, body organ systems just start to shut down. After you start getting below 90, then the injuries become much more severe and the need for absolute elevation of your temperature back to normal becomes pretty important pretty rapidly. The third injury that people don’t realize is an injury called trench foot. It’s more common in military recruits but certainly in individuals that are going to be outside for a long period of time can begin to suffer from this illness as well. Wet feet that are exposed to cold temperatures of 50 degrees or less for prolonged periods of time will start to suffer from frostbite-type illnesses or symptoms within hours of exposure to those cold, wet, damp conditions.

YW: What’s your advice about proper clothing to stay safe? You said that was an important element.

SW: Thinking about what you’re going to be wearing whenever you’re exercising outside is probably the most important thing for you to do to maintain your safety. Most sports medicine professionals suggest that individuals can safely exercise outside as long as they take these precautions. We just talked about trench foot and trench foot occurs in some relatively mild conditions. Most people don’t think about becoming injured in 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you are not wearing dry shoes or not wearing shoes that are waterproof or don’t cover up high enough on the ankle to prevent snow from getting in, can lead to those illnesses. So, making sure you have proper footwear that are waterproof, dry. Socks become important. You want to avoid cotton material. Wool material is much better. It tends to dry faster and also helps to wick away moisture from the skin. When it comes to the upper body, you want to dress in layers. This is important because as you begin to sweat, this can actually predispose you to cold injury, because the evaporation tries to cool our temperatures, just like when we’re exercising outside during the summer. Allowing yourself to take off layers as you become more warm to try and avoid sweating becomes important. You also want a base layer that helps to warm the air surrounding the skin, then moving to a breathable material that would allow sweating to go through the clothing to try and wick it away from the skin to help keep yourself warm becomes very important as well. Whenever you’re trying to keep the hands warm, mittens actually work better than gloves in preventing frostbite, so that’s another tip that can help with avoiding cold injury.

YW: And what about our heads?

SW: Your head can actually account for a great deal of heat loss and is often forgotten when we’re outside. As much as 50, 75 percent of an individual’s heat loss can come from their head as temperatures begin to drop. So you want to make sure to cover the head, the ears, the nose as best as you can, especially as temperatures drop further and further. You certainly can become hypothermic by not covering the head.

YW: What about hydration when you’re exercising in the cold?

SW: Hydration is just as important whenever you’re exercising out in the cold as it is during the summer. The added precaution, though, is you have to balance and make sure that you’re not sweating too much. Hydration is just as important, though. You have to make sure that you’re maintaining your blood volume, which is directly from the amount of liquids that you are drinking. You can certainly become dehydrated, and dehydrated individuals are more likely to suffer from frostbite or hypothermia, so this is important to keep in mind.

With a few extra precautions, you certainly can exercise outside, in Missouri winters especially, all year long.

YW: Thank you so much, Dr. Woods, for joining us today.

SW: Thanks for allowing me to be here today.

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