Cold Weather Exercise Safety

Shivering, Frostbite, and Hypothermia

Winter exercise safety
Winter exercise safety. (c) Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Winter weather means taking special precautions when you exercise outside. Cold exposure can make outdoor activity uncomfortable or even dangerous for anyone unprepared for extreme weather. It's important to be aware of the early warning signs and symptoms of cold exposure and how to prevent problems.


Shivering is usually the first sign of cold exposure. As the body is trying to generate its own heat you will develop uncontrolled muscle contraction. Shivering should be your first warning to seek shelter and warm up your core temperature.

The two most dangerous conditions that can result from cold weather exposure include frostbite and hypothermia.


Frostbite describes the freezing of the superficial layer of the skin and the underlying tissues of the face, ears, fingers, and toes.

Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Pain
  • Burning
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Skin turns hard and white
  • Skin starts to peel or get blisters
  • Skin starts to itch
  • Skin gets firm, shiny, and grayish-yellow

Steps to Take

To help a frostbite victim, get the person to a warm, dry place and remove constrictive clothing. Raise affected areas and apply warm, moist compresses to these areas. Do not rub frostbitten areas or apply direct heat.


Hypothermia is a more severe response to cold exposure that is defined as a drop in body core temperature from 98.6° F (37° C) to 95° F (35° C).

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Cold sensation, goosebumps, confusion, numbness
  • Intense shivering, lack of coordination, sluggishness
  • Violent shivering, difficulty speaking, mental confusion, stumbling, depression
  • Muscle stiffness, slurred speech and trouble seeing
  • Unconsciousness

At the first sign of hypothermia take the person to a dry, warm place, or warm the victim with blankets, extra dry clothing or your own body heat.

Hypothermia Prevention

The first line of defense against cold exposure is dressing in layers that are appropriate for the conditions. Layers should include a combination of clothing (base, mid, and outer) that help regulate your temperature and keep you warm and dry. Other factors that can negatively affect your ability to handle cold temperatures can include inadequate winter hydration and nutrition, dehydration, alcohol consumption, certain medications and health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, which can significantly decrease a person's ability to exercise outdoors in the cold.

Eat for winter exercise: What you eat before cold-weather exercise can help you avoid serious cold-related issues. Plan ahead and pack the right snacks for sustained energy in the cold.

Avoid alcohol: Alcohol dilates blood vessels and increases heat loss, so the odds of experiencing a hypothermic event increase.

Alcohol can also impair judgment to the extent that you may not make the best or brightest decisions in a cold-weather emergency. It's best to leave the alcohol behind when you head out into the cold.

How To Safely Exercise In Cold Weather

To improve your comfort and safety while exercising in the cold, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following tips:

Layer Clothing: Several thin layers are warmer than one heavy layer. Layers are also easier to add or remove and thus, better regulate your core temperature. The goal is to keep the body warm and minimize sweating and avoid shivering.

Cover your Head: Your head should be covered while exercising in the cold, because heat loss from the head and neck may be as much as 50 percent of the total heat being lost by your body.

Cover your Mouth: To warm the air before you breathe it, use a scarf or mask. Do this especially if breathing cold air causes angina (chest pain) or you are prone to upper respiratory problems.

Stay Dry: Wet, damp clothing, whether from perspiration or precipitation, significantly increases body-heat loss.

Keep Your Feet Warm and Dry: Use a fabric that will wick perspiration away from the skin. Polypropylene, wool or other fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin and retain insulating properties keep the body warm when wet.

Stay Hydrated: Dehydration affects your body's ability to regulate body heat and increases the risk of frostbite. Fluids, especially water, are as important in cold weather as in the heat. Avoid consuming alcohol or beverages containing caffeine, because these items are dehydrating.

8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.