Exercises in the Cold: What to Wear and When It’s Better to Stay Inside

Regular exercise all the year round is the best way to promote good health and well-being. Of course, in the winter, it might be a bit more challenging to do that. In addition, when you’re possibly feeling a drop in mood, being active can help to make your mental health and energy better. 

And is it a bad idea to exercise outside when it’s cold? No, lower temperatures are no excuse to skip your workout. You can exercise safely in most cold weather environments, as long as you’re smart about it. That includes wearing the right cold weather workout clothes. 

“You’ll be fine if you can manage the big three outdoor winter workout concerns: overextended exposure to cold temperatures, wind chill levels, and moisture,” says Mark Koester, a National Association of Sports Medicine–certified corrective exercise specialist and head of fitness at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. 

Just be aware that there are a few risks associated with exercising in colder weather for people with certain preexisting conditions for which overexertion in cold temperatures could exacerbate symptoms (such conditions include asthma and heart problems). If you have one of these or another chronic health problem that might interfere with outdoor exercise in the cold, Koester suggests asking your doctor.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: it is not just snow or ice or the temperature on the thermometer that you need to be concerned about. Wind chill is a serious winter weather factor that can make the actual temperature feel significantly lower. 

“Wind chill levels are, in most cases, more important than the actual temperature,” says Koester. “Wind levels, as they pick up, can penetrate your clothing and remove that insulating layer of warmth that gets generated by your body through exercise.” 

Therefore, if the temperature is 0 degrees F, and there’s a wind speed of 15 miles per hour, then the wind chill will make it feel like minus 19 degrees F—and any exposed skin can freeze in as little as 30 minutes.

So, when it comes to going outside for a workout in cold weather, one of the smartest things you can do (aside from putting a time limit on the amount of time you spend exercising outside) to overcome those challenges is to dress appropriately for the weather. Here’s what you should know about what to wear when exercising in the cold and when you should stay indoors.

What Winter Workout Clothes Should I Wear to Exercise in the Cold?

The layers are necessary in an outdoor winter workout, regardless of the level of activity or the temperature. However, as it depends on the type of weather—for instance, snow, rain, or wind—as noted by Brigham Pierce, director of global marketing for sustainable apparel company prana, layering is always a good idea. “Most importantly, keep your body temperature constant. Layering allows you to adjust and adapt when working out in case you overestimated or misjudged the conditions”. 

Even if you don’t need to worry about chest and abdominal area warmest, in cases where blood tends to pull. According to Pierce, “your nose, fingers, and toes will be the areas that are going to be the coldest,” so wearing gloves, thick socks, or running gaiters—fabric items that cover the ankles and shoe openings—will really help. To keep your neck warm, a face mask is also a useful investment. However, Pierce says that the material should be quick-drying and breathable, as materials like fleece or wool can keep moisture and feel colder. 

As your body temperature rises, it’s crucial to adjust your clothing to prevent overheating. According to Koester, this means that donning too much or too little for outdoor winter activities might be equally risky. “Removing layers when the temperature rises is just as important as adding layers when the temperature drops,” he explains. “You could overheat because you’re still perspiring.” 

That means remembering to drink enough water as you would on warmer days. Also, pay attention to your body. If you’re working out as normally as for you but notice that you’re feeling slower or that it’s wearing you out more than usual, it could be because of the kind and quantity of clothing you’re wearing. 

Also, don’t forget to wear sunscreen on exposed skin areas, including your face, neck, hands, and ankles. Even if in freezing weather, the sun’s harmful UV rays can still cause harm, and this effect may be amplified if snow is present on the ground for them to reflect off of.

What Should I Wear to Run in the Cold?

A general rule of thumb for winter runners would be to dress as if it’s 15 to 20 degrees colder than the temperature. Koester suggests that since your body’s going to heat up pretty quickly, layering is what’s key.

 “Always opt for a fitted, performance-type first layer that’s going to pull moisture from your body,” says Pierce. That layer helps push heat off your body into the midlayer. Cotton soaks up water, and that layer helps pull moisture from your body. “If moisture builds on your clothes, this will draw heat away from your body, which will lower your core temperature quicker than you want,” says Koester.

Here, Pierce suggests a T-shirt-weight performance long-sleeve with a lightweight windproof jacket. When it’s really cold, he suggests adding a lightweight insulated jacket, something made of fleece or wool. 

And remember to keep those extremities, like ankles, fingers, wrists, and your neck, covered.

 What Should I Wear to Bike in the Cold?

It can be difficult to dress appropriately for a bike ride, according to Koester. Even when the temperature is high outdoors, he contends that the wind chill factor is actually even higher than while you are walking. This is due to the fact that producing heat requires a lot of effort from your legs; 

However, since upper body control is more dependent on wind management, this also affects the wind chill factor. Koester highlights that when riding a bike, you run the risk of frostbite, 

Thus you need to protect those vulnerable areas around your hands and eyes. Which aspect does this typically appear to be ignoring? the skin, usually at the wrist, that your jacket touches. Put on gloves to hide that weakness.

 What Should I Wear for Walking in the Cold?

A winter walk is exercise, and dressing appropriately can make you a lot more comfortable during it. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to wear the same gear as if you were going to run or ride a bike, Koester says. 

“If you’re heading out for a lower-intensity exercise event like a walk, keep in mind that your body temperature will rise, but not the way it would in a higher-intensity workout, like running or biking,” says Koester. Clearly, the same rules apply when it comes to layering and the types of materials you choose. But you will likely find it helpful to wear another layer between the middle layer and top layer for more warmth, probably.

 What Should I Wear for Skiing in the Cold?

It is important to consider some environmental conditions while planning for a day on the slopes. It is important to wear several layers of clothing: consider a lightweight, quick-drying base layer, a mid-thermal layer, and an outer ski jacket layer, depending on the conditions. Also, gear to cover your head, ears, neck, and face, and well-fitting ski boots. Use ski goggles for optimal eye protection; they will help shield against harsh temperatures, wind, and precipitation, adds Koester. 

And remember: you want sweat to dry quickly, as wet clothing will chill the body, adds Koester. Opt for quick-drying, moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics, particularly for covering areas of the body that tend to sweat more (like the base layer on your top or hats). “Remove layers as your body starts to heat up,” he says. “But be sure to replace them when you start to cool down between runs or at lower intensities.”

 And do not discount the sun, which can sometimes be an issue, though potentially tough at higher elevations. Consider a waterproof sunscreen, so it works in spite of snow and sweat, and choose one with SPF 30 or higher.