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Making the Most of Winter – Tips for exercise outdoors

Taking to the outdoors in the Toronto winter to exercise can be healthy and rewarding. Not only does it beat the treadmill if you find that boring, it can also help beat the winter blues if you are feeling down in the winter months. The activity can help keep your fitness level up and your weight down, which is important around the holiday season, and with New Year's resolutions related to health. If you follow a few guidelines for safety and comfort, you can really enjoy the tranquility and serenity that comes with Toronto winters.

First, if you are considering exercising outdoors and are not already currently in a walking (or running, whichever activity you are thinking of doing) routine, it is a good idea to check with a qualified health care professional. The effort of unaccustomed exercise combined with the effects of the weather can be too much for some people, so it is better to play it on the safe side and get cleared for winter exercise. However, if you have been given a clean bill of health and the ok to start exercise in the winter air, then read on.

Once you decide to head out, a few things to keep in mind each time: check the weather report. The risk of frost bite begins when the weather (including wind chill) gets colder than about -10 degrees Celsius. Most people are fine with moderate exercise at temperatures at -10 degrees. However, start with a short route so that if you do find it cold you can cut the exercise short. As you gradually increase your distance, you can do that short route multiple times so that you are never far from warmth.

As far as what to wear, you want to focus on layers rather than a heavy coat. After your warm up, and you are in the “groove” you will warm up and your body will start working to cool off (for a related post on winter running and burning calories click here). There are lots of specialty clothing products available, which are great, but what you wear need not be fancy or expensive. Just keep a few things in mind. The layer of clothing against your skin (the base layer) is the most important. This should be a synthetic layer (like polypropylene, etc) or some other fabric that wicks moisture away. You will probably still perspire and you don't want something like cotton which will hold that moisture against you skin. This wetness can cause excessive heat loss, which is a risk in the winter. The middle layer should be something with bulk to hold warm air around your body. This can be a sweater or fleece for example. Something with a zipper or adjustable ventilation is a useful to let out a little of the warm air if you feel it too warm. The outer layer should be a windbreaker or shell. This will cut down on the cooling effect of any wind. I recommend this jacket should have reflective parts (especially if you exercise later in the day when it gets dark early). It should be water resistant if there is any chance of moisture or snow. Again, if your clothing gets wet, it can make you cold. You should wear your running shoes with good tread, not the pair from 2 years ago. Running shoes are lighter and likely provide better support than heavy boots. (for more information about running shoes click here. ) Stick to cleared sidewalks when it snows to prevent slipping. There are products that will fit over your shoes and improve your traction, but if you keep to the cleared sidewalks, these should not be necessary. Also remember gloves (preferably mitts) and a hat that can cover your ears.

Try to keep things light. If you are burdened with heavy or bulky items, your walk or run is definitely less enjoyable. However there are a few items to carry with you to be prepared. I always carry my health card, a little bit of money (even a $5 bill), my phone, and water in my water bottle. Some people a perfectly comfortable carrying their water bottle, but I usually like to keep my hands free. The holder I wear around my waist carries the waterbottle and has a small mesh pocket that holds all the above items. The only other think I might take is a small snack, like a snack bar. This depends on the duration of my trip and the temperature. If I will be longer than about 20 minutes or if it is on the colder side I will bring a snack along. One thing about food, the act of digesting it actually creates a little heat! It is called the thermogenic effect of food. If I feel a little cool and do not want to stop for a warm drink, then it can make me feel more comfortable on the run.

Finally, it is a great idea to have one or two people with you to keep you company and safe. This is wonderful when you are just starting off with outdoor winter exercise and/or you need help to stay motivated. Keeping a commitment to each other to meet up and exercise will keep you all fit, and you can look after each other if something were not to go according to plan. Furthermore if you are able to keep up a quick pace while still carrying on a conversation (without gasping for breath) you are probably at a good (moderate) intensity.

Use common sense, stay safe, and enjoy the winter!


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