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A Physical Therapist's Safety Tips for Outdoor Winter Activity

December 21, 2023

Smiling elderly man stretching outside in winter

Spending time outdoors is good for your physical and mental health — even in the winter. Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you have to skip your outdoor run or pickleball game (assuming the courts are open). You just have to prepare your body to avoid injury and maximize your efforts.

Whether you’re skiing, snowboarding, running or just taking your dog outside for a walk, it’s always a good idea to take a few precautions.

Liz Pignatiello, PT, a physical therapist with Atlantic Health System, recommends the following five safety tips when engaging in outdoor winter activities:

1. Assess conditions

Before you lace up your sneakers and head out the door, check the weather conditions. Is it icy? Are there high winds? Is there too much snow to move through?

“The first thing you need to consider is whether it’s safe to be outside,” says Liz. “Always put safety first.”

2. Warm up

Take time to actively warm up with a few minutes of gentle activity. Start with walking or light activity to raise your heart rate and increase muscle temperature. Add some dynamic stretching to your routine as well. As Liz explains, dynamic stretches involve actively moving your body through a full range of motion. Think: Arm circles, leg swings, marching in place.

“People often think stretching means holding positions for a period of time,” Liz explains. “Those static stretches are good for after activity, but before any exercise, you want to warm up your muscles with dynamic stretches.”

3. Don’t delay

Liz points out that after you’ve taken the time to warm up your muscles, don’t hang around chatting with your neighbor or friends. Get moving! “Don’t allow too much time to pass between your warm-up and activity, or else your body will begin to cool down again,” she says.

4. Dress appropriately

It may seem obvious, but dress for the season. Don’t go outside in shorts and a tank top during the winter. Dress in layers and wear clothes with both thermal (warming) and wicking properties (to move sweat away from your body). If it’s raining or snowing, wear waterproof or water-resistant clothing that’s breathable so you don’t overheat.

If you’re sensitive to cold air, consider wearing a scarf or mask over your nose and mouth. And if you choose to wear a hat or gloves, be sure to have a plan for them when you want to remove them. (If you don’t have pockets, you can always just hold them in your hands, even though it’s cumbersome.)

A note for endurance athletes: Because your body temperature will rise as you progress through your workout or activity, dress as if it’s a little warmer than it actually is. Be sure to consider any wind or precipitation in addition to the temperature.

5. Stay hydrated

This tip is less obvious, but just as important. As Liz explains, people often overlook the importance of drinking adequate amounts of water before, during and after winter exercise, but your body temperature still rises with activity even when it’s cold outside — especially if you’re wearing too many layers.

“We also know that performance decreases as dehydration increases,” Liz says, “So if you want to maximize your performance, be sure to stay hydrated.”

Whether you’re running outside for exercise or making memories with your kids sledding down the neighborhood hill, prepare your body so you can fully enjoy the season, injury-free. And if you do experience any pain or discomfort that doesn’t improve, call your doctor for an evaluation.

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