sneakers in rain | what to wear when exercising in cold weather

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Want to get active when you’re on a budget? The world is your gym—no membership required. Spending time in nature has a ton of benefits: A growing body of research shows that exposure to green space improves brain function, reduces stress, and improves mental well-being. In a 2015 study, people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting ruminated less and had less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a region of the brain associated with mood disorders—than those who walked in an urban setting.

However, sometimes the weather can (literally) dampen your plans to get active outside. In very hot or cold temperatures, humidity, rain, or snow, people are more likely to put off exercise, according to a study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. A whopping 83 percent of students in a recent Student Health 101 survey said they would be less likely to workout outside in unpleasant weather conditions.

While you can’t change the weather, you can work with the seasons by learning how to dress in conditions that might normally stand in your way. To help you stay active—and safe—all year round, we’ve compiled some of our best tips on what to wear when exercising in cold weather, heat, rain, sleet, or snow.

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If it’s cold: Layer up

cold weather activewear

Stinging in your ears, numb fingers, watery eyes, and burning lungs are all signs that you’re working outside of your body’s optimal ambient temperature. When this happens, your body concentrates blood flow around your vital organs and limits the blood flow to your extremities (e.g., arms and legs), which can impair muscle function.

“When exercising in adverse cold weather, layering properly is the most important thing you can do,” says Stacy Ciarleglio, head athletic trainer at the Westminster School in Connecticut. “People don’t realize how much they can actually sweat when exercising in the cold. Once the base layer gets wet, it will be tough to get and stay warm.” For this reason, she recommends avoiding cotton—which can absorb sweat rather than wicking it away—and instead using sweat-wicking materials, such as wool or a polyester blend.

Ciarleglio also emphasizes the importance of not overdressing. “When you exercise, you will warm up, even if you are freezing to start,” she says. “Sometimes a long-sleeve base layer with a vest (which helps keep the core warm) is all you need. A good guideline is to dress like it’s 20 degrees warmer.”

Clothing for cold weather exercise typically includes three layers:

  • An inner layer that wicks moisture and is in direct contact with the skin
  • A middle layer to provide insulation
  • An outer layer, such as a light jacket, that offers wind resistance

Once you have your layering down, Ciarleglio suggests adding a hat or ear band, thin gloves, wool socks, and tights. “Some tights are insulated with fleece or have an extra layer of windproof material for very cold weather,” she says.

  • A ski jacket or parka
  • Thermal underwear and socks
  • Shell pants (especially in the snow)
  • A BUFF® or face mask
  • Insulated waterproof boots (or a winter running shoe)

You should also switch your gloves to mittens and add hand warmers, if necessary. Cover as much skin as possible to avoid frostbite.

“Make sure to pay attention to the windchill if you live in that sort of climate (I live in Northern Minnesota, so it’s very important),” says Journey G., a first-year graduate student at The College of St. Scholastica. “Also, be sure to cover any unprotected skin, even if it looks dorky!”

hot icon

If it’s hot: Go lightweight

warm weather activewear

Working out in hot weather is stressful on the body because you are losing water quickly while raising your body temperature. Humidity compounds the issue because the moisture in the air prevents sweat from evaporating, so your body’s natural cooling system doesn’t work as efficiently. To prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke, choosing the right type of clothing is crucial.

Use the following guidelines to put together your hot-weather gear:

  • Wear lightweight, breathable clothing
  • Choose white or light-colored clothes when exercising in the sun
  • Cotton is a good option for heat, since it soaks up sweat and allows for evaporation
  • A baseball cap and sunglasses can protect you from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays
  • Wear sunscreen and consider investing in some sun protection (UPF) clothing to protect your skin

“I used to run three times a week with my platoon in the desert while taking classes for my undergrad online,” says Luke C., an online graduate student at Park University. “The most important thing in heat is to hydrate well before [exercising] and to make sure to protect against the sun with sunscreen.”

precipitation icon

If it’s raining or snowing: Think slip resistant 

woman running in wet weather

Precipitation can be a hazard, as it affects how the body copes with temperatures. Wet skin or clothes channel heat away from the body, causing it to work harder to maintain a functional core temperature.

In addition, wet or icy pathways can be dangerous. Sprained ankles, knee injuries, and pulled muscles occur all the time as a result of exercising on unstable ground.

For optimal safety, wear the following clothing for working out in the rain or snow:

  • Wicking fabrics and light layers, which are key to keeping you dry
  • A water-resistant or breathable waterproof outer layer
  • Durable shoes with a heavy-duty tread pattern for wet or muddy conditions, and spikes for icy or snow-covered roads and trails

all weather icon

Tips for exercising all year round

active male drinking water in sunset

  • Make sure to drink plenty of water, even in cold weather. You may not sweat as much, but your body is still losing water because it’s working hard to generate heat.
  • Wear sunscreen whenever you’re out during the day. The sun’s UV rays are in effect all year, even if it’s cold or cloudy.
  • Consider lighting and road surfaces, and be aware of your surroundings. Exercise with a buddy to increase your safety.
  • Warm-up and cool-down exercises are essential to offset the challenges of seasonal weather. Spend at least five minutes warming up by walking, doing jumping jacks, or simple body weight exercises such as lunges, arm circles, and squats. Also, take time to gradually cool down by walking or doing your chosen activity more slowly at the end of your workout.
  • Remember to stretch: Try dynamic stretches before the workout to help your muscles warm up and static stretches after to cool down and improve flexibility.
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Article sources

Dr. George Jessup, ski instructor and former advisor at Texas A&M University’s Mountain Sports Association.

Stacy Ciarleglio, head athletic trainer, Westminster School, Connecticut.

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