Can Cold Weather Exercise Put Your Heart at Risk?

winter runningOf course it can. In fact, winter is officially heart attack season! Research shows that there are 53% more heart attacks in winter than summer (yikes). Excessive holiday celebration is one factor. The temperature outside and it’s effect on your hearth health is another.

Couch Potato to Snow Angel

To understand the impact of cold weather on your heart health, let’s look at an example. It’s late December and you are in full hibernation mode. Other than the occasional holiday party, your primary winter activity is sitting on the couch and watching football.

As usual, you dose off with a beer in one hand and a chicken wing in the other. When you wake up, there is a fresh blanket of snow of the ground. You quickly finish the beer and chicken wing (still in your hand) before heading outside for some competitive shoveling with the neighbors.

Uh-oh, I don’t like where this is going.

As you venture outside for the first time in days, your body starts to react to the cold temperature. Your heart goes into overdrive in an effort to keep your body warm. This means a faster heart rate and a rise in blood pressure. Paying no mind to all this, you start shoveling. Game over – permanent snow angel!

Prepare for Yeti

Does this mean it’s safer to stay inside on the couch? No – you just need to prepare your body for cold weather activity. The best way to prepare your body is to stay in shape during the winter months.

You can safely do this with a combination of indoor AND outdoor workouts. Before heading into the great outdoors, make sure you:

  • Warm-up inside – Stretch your muscles and get your heart rate up a bit in order to warm the core.
  • Dress appropriately – Dress in layers and avoid cotton or any material that will retain moisture. Don’t forget a hat and gloves. Rule of thumb is to dress for about 15 degrees warmer than it really is so you don’t overheat.
  • Wear reflective clothing – If you are walking or running before or after work, it’s likely dark. Make sure others can see you by wearing reflective materials in as many places as possible.

Once out there, watch your step.   It’s winter, so be on the lookout for ice, wet leafs, and Yeti.  Why all these words of caution (remember what happened when you rushed outside to shovel that snow)? A recent study found that heart attacks happen at the beginning of winter vacations. Why? Rapid transition from couch to slope.

Winter Motivation

Preparation may be the easy part in regards to winter exercise. Motivation can be the real challenge. Winter tends to make us lazy.  So how do you stay motivated during the winter months?

  • Set goals – remember, the beach is only six months away. Start preparing now! New Year’s resolutions might help get things started.
  • Take your “before” picture – enough said.
  • Train for an event – find a 5K or similar race coming to your area in the spring. Get a training plan and stick to it.
  • Hire a trainer – financial loss it typically a good motivator.

You are now prepared and motivated.  Step away from the TV and enjoy the benefits of some outdoor activity.

Coldrun=Photo credit: Alfred Hermida / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA