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Safety Tips for Exercising Outdoors in Winter

Just because it’s sweater weather, you don’t have to trade your running shoes for slippers and take up couch-potato channel surfing.

Even if you’re one of those outdoor exercise aficionados.

“Oftentimes in the winter, it gets cold and people don’t want to do anything,” said Dr. Diego Villacis, an orthopedic surgeon at NorthShore Orthopedic Institute. “They don’t want to exercise and that’s not what we want.”

With the proper precautions and gear, you can continue your outdoor exercise routines – or try some new ones – during Chicago’s cold months.

Cross-country skiing, for example, is “a great workout for cardio endurance,” Villacis said. “It’s good on the joints because there’s not a lot of impact like there is with running. It’s like an elliptical outside.”

It also allows you to soak up winter scenery on forest preserves trails, including those in Cook County. (Check out Chicago Fitness Report’s guide to other area trails.)

Not into skiing? Running is still an option – but watch out for falling snow and ice, which can cause spills that result in sprains and broken bones, Villacis says.

“If it’s snowing, there’s moisture somewhere and that can freeze. You could be running on snow and there could be a layer of ice beneath it,” he said. Special shoe ice snow grips can be added to running shoes, but when in doubt, skip it. “No matter what, if you’re worried about traction, you shouldn’t be running outside,” Villacis said.

And because of limited daylight hours and the chance for icy roads, Villacis generally recommends avoiding biking in winter.

Regardless of the activity you choose, remember to dress appropriately for the weather, including the wind chill. That includes clothing that wicks away moisture, and multiple layers topped by a waterproof and windproof layer, says Villacis.

Wearing hats, gloves and outerwear that covers the nose, like a ski mask, is also advised because ears, fingers, nose and toes are most susceptible to frostbite.

“The first thing you notice (with frostbite) is the cold and then you notice the pain, and then it goes numb,” Villacis said. “When you have pain in your fingers and toes, take it seriously and get them covered.”

Move indoors as soon as you start feeling symptoms because frostbite can progress to cause blistering, numbness and cause skin to develop a dark blackish color, with the latter requiring immediate medical attention, according to Villacis.

Once indoors, be sure to remove any wet clothing and immerse the frostbitten body parts in warm water. If there are blisters, Villacis recommends seeking medical attention because the type of treatment is dependent on the type of blister, which can occur as translucent (like ones that form from ill-fitting shoes) or deep red in color.

Paying attention to the weather and dressing accordingly can decrease the chances of hypothermia, or a dangerous drop in body temperature.

“If you’re shivering a lot, your body is saying your core temperature is too low,” he said. If that happens, go inside, remove any wet or cold clothing, wrap up in warm blankets and drink warm liquids.

Frostbite and hypothermia can happen even when it’s not 30 degrees below zero, according to Villacis. “You can get frostbite. It’s not just a Mt. Everest thing. I’ve seen it happen and I’m sure I’ll see it again,” he said. 

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | kthometz@wttw.com | (773) 509-5452


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