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Cold weather exercising is safe, with some precautions

It's getting colder outside, but many people still want to get in a daily run, ride or walk. Outdoors exercise can be done safely in lower temperatures, says Dr. David Buchalter an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at OrthoMaryland. But some precautions are necessary. It's important to stretch, drink fluids and cover your head in the cold. And if your New Year's resolution is to begin exercising this winter, you need to ask yourself some questions first.

Question: What's different about cold-weather exercising, and how do you prepare?

Answer: Cold weather affects the body's systems in different ways. The cardiovascular system responds to cold by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure and reduces the amount of blood closest to the skin's surface. The airway passages of the cardiorespiratory system tend to narrow, making inhalation more difficult, so persons susceptible to asthma or exercise-induced bronchitis may have more difficulty breathing in cold air. The bodily stores of glucose (a sugar) are depleted five times more quickly in cold weather, leading the body to use fat more readily to supply energy for itself. While the consequences of exercising in cold weather can be severe, there are several straightforward and effective ways to prepare. Wearing layered clothing is one of the first steps the cold-weather athlete should take. Wearing a hat is another important precaution, as more than 50 percent of the body's heat is lost thought the head. A scarf or similar neck warmer will warm the air as you breath, making inhalation easier.

Q: What if you have not been exercising and want to start?

A: In order to begin your exercise program safely and effectively, answer the following questions. If you answer "yes" to more than one or you are unsure of any answer, it is recommended that you see a doctor before pursuing a vigorous exercise program, according to the guidelines for exercise testing and prescription from the American College of Sports Medicine.

Are you a man over 45 years old? Are you a woman over the age of 55? Or are you less than 55 years old and past menopause, but not taking estrogen? Has any male family member died of a heart attack before age 55? Or, has any female family member died of a heart attack before age 65? Do you smoke cigarettes? Has a doctor ever told you have high blood pressure? Or has your blood pressure been measured more than once at greater than 140 over 90? Or do you take high blood-pressure medicine? Has your doctor ever told you that you have high cholesterol? Or do you know if your total cholesterol is greater than 200? Or is your HDL cholesterol less than 35? Do you consider yourself physically inactive at work and during your leisure time?

Also, if you have been told by a physician that you have any cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease or metabolic disease such as diabetes, obtain permission from your doctor before beginning or changing your exercise program.

Q: What about stretching in cold versus warm weather?

A: It is important to stretch and warm up in all types of weather. However, our bodies tend to stiffen more easily in cold weather. So frequent stretching is very important in the cold to help lessen the chance of injury, particularly muscle strains and tears.

Q: What are the most common cold-weather injuries?

A: Two of the most common and dangerous cold-weather injuries are frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite describes the freezing of tissues of the fingers, toes, face and ears. Symptoms include pain, burning, numbness and tingling. The skin may itch, blister and peel, or change colors. Hypothermia is a more serious response to cold that involves a drop in the body's core temperature. Symptoms include shivering, confusion, loss of consciousness, muscle stiffness and difficulty walking, seeing or speaking.

Q: Can you treat yourself at home?

A: For frostbite, you should get the individual to a warm, dry place and remove any constrictive clothing. Elevate affected areas and loosely apply warm, moist compresses. At the first sign of hypothermia, take the person to a dry, warm place or warm the individual with blankets, extra dry clothing or your own body heat. You should take the individual as soon as possible to an emergency facility.

Q: Can you get overheated or dehydrated in the winter?

A: Yes, you can easily get overheated or dehydrated in the winter. There is evidence suggesting that we can more easily become dehydrated with winter exercise. We lose a great deal of water in the winter due to the respiratory fluid loss through breathing. Our bodies also are working harder under the weight of extra clothing, and sweat evaporates quickly in cold, dry air. Furthermore, in the cold we often don't feel thirsty and therefore, tend not to drink as much water.

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