Winter Exercise + How to Walk in the Cold!

You can still get your steps in winter and stay active and healthy, even in the cold or tough winter weather. We’ll be honest – it’s not as easy to get your steps in winter as it is in spring or summer – but that’s ok! Once you know how to walk in the cold, it becomes much easier and more comfortable to get walking in the winter.. If you wear the right fabrics, dress in layers, and walk when it’s brightest and warmest, you’ll be able to maintain your step goal.

The recent arctic blast that hit the US in November not only broke hundreds of temperature records across the country, it ended the outdoor exercise regimen for many who enjoy walking. Shorter days, cold and snow can make walking more difficult. It’s that much more important to keep up your daily fitness habit, even in winter. The more active you can stay, the more active you’ll be once the weather clears up and you enter the perfect walking season. Your body will also thank you for the benefits to your physical and mental health!

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1. Just Start Moving

3 people walking in winter for fitness
AYA images / Shutterstock

The first few minutes of a winter workout are the most difficult. Oftentimes, just taking that first step outside your door is enough to push you through your entire workout. Once you’re accustomed to the weather and enjoying the snowy scenery, you forget about the chill and concentrate on the steps ahead.

Pledge to take that first step outside your door. Once you’re out, you’ll probably realize that it’s not as bad as you thought. Now, try walking for 5 minutes. If you’re really not feeling it, you can cut your walk short then. Once you start walking, however, you’ll probably forget that idea and finish your entire walk. If you’re having difficulty, try something short, like a 15-minute or 30-minute walking workout (as long as the footing is safe enough to walk briskly)! Walking while cold may actually burn more calories. Think of that if you still need extra motivation!

Of course, if the weather is dangerously cold, it’s better to revert to indoor walking or take a rest day. But if you’re just not feeling up for it, open the door and take the first step.

Walking in winter helps you feel better

Both the cold weather and reduced sunlight and daytime hours lead many people to be less happy in winter. There’s even a name for this condition: seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder is depression linked to winter conditions – which has shown in many cases to be due to lack of bright sunlight. Whether you suffer from seasonal affective disorder or simply feel less happy in winter, walking can help you improve your mood. 

Walking helps to improve your mood and boost your energy. It gets your blood pumping, and gives you a chance to connect with nature. For those dealing with a lack of natural light, getting out during the daylight hours and walking may be preferable to sitting inside under a dim lamp. Walking also helps you get out of the house, which can help you meet more people and have more interesting interactions – all of which lead to more happiness! Walking can also help boost your immune system and if you have a minor cold walking can give you energy. Of course, if you’re suffering from serious or flu-like symptoms you should rest instead.

2. What to wear

Winter walking outfit shoes and gloves
margostock / Shutterstock

Layer up and pare down as you go

Even if the weather outside is very cold, you’re likely to heat up and sweat as you walk. If you frequently get hot during cold-weather walks, try dressing in layers with at least one layer that’s easy for you to remove during your walk.

Often, instead of a single, heavy jacket you may be better off with a thermal shirt, a sweater or sweatshirt of some kind and an outer jacket. You may need even more layers if it’s very cold. You’ll stay comfortable and more mobile with lighter layers than with a bulky coat that offers no options other than wear it or carry it.

Get a good pair of shoes

Comfortable walking shoes and socks
Adam Melnyk / Shutterstock

Walking on snow, ice, mud and wet grass and gravel can be hazardous. Buy a sturdy, water-resistant pair of walking shoes with a slip-resistant outsole that is designed to grip slippery surfaces. If it tends to snow a lot where you live, consider buying a second pair so you never have to wait for your walking shoes to dry. Match your walking shoes to the weather, and you’re less likely to wind up in need of a hand up from a bad fall.

Your pair of waterproof walking shoes should retain warmth for winter walking. Many running shoes are vented to allow air in, which is great for heat weather but can leave your feet very cold in the winter. Consider saving your running shoes for indoor walking or walking or jogging on a treadmill.

Wear a windproof outer layer

Sweatshirts and sweaters are great for staying warm on a cold night at home, but most don’t do a great job of stopping the cold and wind during a walk. Invest in a winter coat that has a windbreaking outer layer that can work together with your favorite sweater on windy days.

If winters are not super cold where you live, a light windbreaker over a sweater might be enough. Many companies make 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 jackets with a removable liner that are excellent choices as well. These allow you to wear just the outer shell when you need less warmth or to add the inner warm liner when you need more. Going outside in just a sweatshirt in the cold is a great way to chill yourself and risk getting sick.

Don’t forget your legs!

While most people don’t leave home in winter without a warm jacket, many forget to bundle up their legs as well. Your legs do tend to head up during walking, but don’t neglect your legs – especially if you’re going on a long walk. Thermal leggings or long underwear work great to help keep you warm. Many people don’t have pants with the same material as their jacket, but heavier fabrics like jeans can also work in a pinch.

Don’t sweat it; wear the right fabrics

Choose moisture-wicking fabrics for your walking workout. Cotton is comfortable, but it holds moisture. As you walk and sweat, this can leave you cold, wet, chafed and shivering in the street. The base layer closest to your skin should be a moisture-wicking fabric that moves sweat away from your skin and also dries quickly. While it’s hard to find a moisture-wicking sweater, you want to at least make sure that any sweat isn’t stuck directly to you on a long, winter walk.

When buying winter workout clothes, try to add highly visible clothes like reflective vests, hats or armbands. Dim winter light makes it more difficult for drivers to see you walking, especially in the morning, evening or in bad weather.

Remember your layers may add extra weight!

Depending on how cold it is where you live, you may need to wear multiple layers of heavy winter clothing. All of that clothing can add up to some significant extra weight that you’re carrying while walking. Combine that with the difficulty of walking through snow and making sure that you’re not stepping on ice and winter walking can be more of a workout than you might think. Fortunately, your center of gravity should still be roughly the same as the weight is more or less evenly distributed which is safer than walking with weights. While walking in the cold may not burn extra calories in practice, the extra weight and tougher workout may actually burn a few extra calories per step!

Pay attention to your feet, hands, and head

Woman bundled up for winter with hat and scarf
Claudia Paulussen / Shutterstock

When your body is exposed to cold, it responds by concentrating blood flow (and thus heat) in your core. This can lead your extremities, like hands, feet, and ears, even colder and at risk for injury and damage. there are a few steps that you can take to help mitigate these issues.

Thick, warm socks

Thick, warm socks can make even regular walking shoes much warmer. Look for higher socks to cover your calves, as air can easily slip between your shoes and the bottom of your pants. Some people like wool socks, while others like synthetic blends. Pure cotton can get wet and stay wet, but there are cotton blends that perform more like synthetics that you can try.

Gloves (or mittens)

A good pair of gloves keeps your hands warm while walking in the winter cold. Mittens (gloves without the individual fingers) are often warmer than regular gloves, since you can put all your fingers together for added warmth. Some mittens even have mini finger covers with a removable mitten top so you can manipulate your phone, doorknob or whatever you need to hold.

If you frequently use your phone while walking, many gloves have a special material on the fingertip areas so that you can still use a touchscreen while walking. These can be a great option if you really need to touch your phone but don’t want to take your gloves off.

While wool gloves are great, windproof gloves with a jacket-type material will stay dry more easily and prevent wind from reaching your fingers.

Ear and face protection

You may not realize your ears, nose or face are cold until you get home and feel some pain from frostbite. Look for earmuffs, ear covers, or if it’s very cold look for full-face protection that covers your ears, nose and face. A simple winter hat can do in a lot of situations as well. Again, remember that you may not notice how cold your ears and nose are initially, but you could be suffering cold-related injuries all the same.

Stay dry

Nothing ruins a winter walk faster than snow or freezing rain. If it snows frequently where you are, look for waterproof shoes that can keep your feet from getting wet during your walk. You may need to go with a hiking boot if snow gets very deep. Be careful that your jacket and especially your pants don’t get soaked during your walk, as this will get very cold very fast and make it hard to finish your walk.

3. Stay Safe

Man and woman setting out for a winter walk

Keep your balance

Ice and snow increase the danger of slips and falls. Consider looking into an inexpensive pair of walking poles for winter workouts. Doing some Nordic walking with poles helps you maintain your balance, and the poles are useful for poking and prodding ground that may look firm (but isn’t) and asphalt that appears safe (but is actually covered by black ice)Ensuring you’re walking with good posture also helps you keep your footing when conditions get bad. 

Change your workout time

Days are shorter in the winter, which can make your regular morning walk a walk in darkness or low light. If darkness falls during your normal workout time, try moving your walking routine to daylight hours, so you can more easily spot road and weather hazards. Use your lunch hour as your step session for the duration of the winter, if no other daytime option is available. If you do need to walk after dinner or in the morning, make sure to dress warmly and be on the lookout for ice and dangerous surfaces. Remember that water and mushy snow during the day often turn to ice as the sun goes down and temperatures drop, so the path you walked yesterday may have different hazards on a winter walk the next morning.

Stick to familiar walking paths

Walking familiar paths helps you identify areas where ice may form, steep hills or other trouble areas on your walking path. Especially during snow, freezing rain or bad weather, try to stick to familiar walking routes where you can at least identify danger areas. This doesn’t mean that you can never explore when the weather is great, but the low light of a winter snowstorm or winter darkness is not the best time to forget a new walking path.

Take a workout buddy for laughs and safety

Couple walking together in the snow

Think “two sets of eyes” for increased exercise safety. Walking is an enjoyable endeavor that sometimes leaves us “in the zone” and not paying attention to potholes, ice patches, deep puddles, and the dreaded “yellow snow”. Workout partners watch each other and also keep one another accountable for those daily steps, calling and texting with the reminder that today’s freeze is “not that bad.”

Having a workout partner also helps motivate you to get out and walk when the weather is cold. You may not feel like getting up in the morning to walk, but knowing that your friend is waiting for you can encourage you to get your steps.

4. Get Active Indoors

Couple walking indoors in the mall
Andrey Arkusha / Shutterstock

Have an indoor backup plan

There are some winter days where the weather just doesn’t cooperate. It could be extremely cold or wet, and getting steps outside is dangerous or just not fun. Have a backup plan to walk indoors and get your steps.

The local mall is the easy choice for getting your steps, especially if it’s multi-story; you get the benefit of both steps and walking up and down stairs. Other indoor venues include your town’s community center (walk around the gym or basketball court), high school gym, senior center (offer some volunteer hours in exchange for the use of their indoor floor space) and a covered parking garage (it’s cold in there, but at least it’s dry and you don’t need to shovel it to use it.)

Consider cross-training

Your walking shoes can go the extra mile with cross-training. There are plenty of fun, indoor activities that can get you moving in a variety of ways. Try signing up for classes in dance, indoor cycling, indoor rowing or weight training. You’ll need your walking shoes and you’ll still get your steps, but your fitness level won’t decline, you’ll work new muscle groups and remain healthy all winter.

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