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How cold is too cold to exercise outside?

Last Modified: February 03, 2023

Safety & Prevention, Sports & Exercise


This post was written by Linying Xiao, ATC, certified athletic trainer, Parkview Sports Medicine.

The chilling temperatures of a Midwestern winter can make outdoor activities uncomfortable, if not dangerous. While there are precautions athletes can take to avoid the risks of the frigid elements, there are limits to what the body can withstand. Learning to recognize the signs of cold injuries is one important way to prevent severe repercussions from exposure. 

Defining cold injuries

Cold injuries are the common result of exposure to environments with cold, wet or windy conditions during physical activity. Cold injuries and illnesses occur in a wide range of physically active individuals, including military personnel, traditional winter sport athletes and outdoor sport athletes, including runners, cyclists, mountaineers and swimmers. These injuries can also occur during recreational activities like sledding, skiing and playing outside in the snow.

Cold injuries are classified into 3 categories: decreased core temperature (hypothermia), freezing injuries of the extremities, and nonfreezing injuries of the extremities.

Hypothermia is a life-threatening emergency issue. It is defined as a decrease in core body temperature below 95°F. Symptoms of hypothermia include cold extremities, pallor (pale appearance), impaired mental function, slurred speech, slow heartbeat and pulmonary edema.

If someone is suffering from hypothermia, they can try to raise their body temperature by removing wet clothes, covering up with a blanket, taking a warm bath and drinking warm beverages. Seek medical attention immediately if the individual is experiencing confusion or loss of consciousness, extremely low body temperature, prolonged exposure, or a change in breathing or skin color.

Frostbite is a localized response to a cold, dry environment. It has several stages, ranging from frostnip to deep frostbite, but the most concerning cases involve a freezing of the tissues, including the muscle, tendon and bone.

If someone is displaying signs of severe frostbite, such as white or blue skin and loss of sensation, they need to receive medical attention immediately.

Mild frostbite develops as a function of the body’s protective mechanisms to maintain core temperature and involves a freezing of the skin. Symptoms can include a tingling feeling, skin that is cold to the touch, aching and/or numbness.

If someone is suffering from mild frostbite, the area should be rewarmed very slowly with warm water.

The verdict

The bottom line: If the temperature falls below 0° F, it’s best to skip the outdoor workout.

If you do choose to brave the elements, before heading out into the cold, people should put on multiple layers of thin clothing. I recommend protecting as much exposed skin as possible by wearing gloves, hats, buffs and/or masks. Be smart and stay safe!

For more on the subject …

If you’re weighing the potential hazards of a cold-weather workout, don’t miss these articles from the Parkview Dashboard:

Protect yourself from head to toe

How to embrace cold weather exercise

Getting ready for cold weather workouts

A podiatrist’s winter frost warning


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