Benefits of Outdoor Winter Walking - Walk with a Wheaton Doc | Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare - Ascension Wisconsin

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Benefits of Outdoor Winter Walking

The benefits of taking an outdoor winter walk are enormous, both mentally and physically! Fresh air, sunshine and movement are all beneficial to your overall health and disposition.

Walking in colder temperatures will help you to burn more calories because your body will work harder to stay warm. Once you get moving, endorphins will release, giving you a euphoric feeling – something much needed to combat the lack of sunlight we experience due to shortened daylight, and the blood pumping through your body will help to make you feel and look better.

Getting just 15 minutes of sun on your face and hands two to three times per week should suffice for getting enough sun for vitamin D production. Sun exposure triggers vitamin D production in the skin, and bones need vitamin D to make the body absorb bone-strengthening calcium properly.

But winter walking also requires a certain amount of preparation and precaution. Slippery walkways or sidewalks must be considered, frozen terrain can be dangerous and frigid air can do damage to skin and lungs if not properly prepared for. Following are some tips to consider before your wintertime walk.

Be Safe

  • First off, heed the warning to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, especially if you suffer from a heart condition, asthma, COPD or other breathing difficulties. 
  • Choose smart footwear. Avoid boots or shoes with smooth soles and heels. Instead, wear shoes or boots that provide traction on snow and ice; boots made of non-slip rubber or neoprene with grooved or waffled soles are best.
  • Assume that all wet, dark areas on pavements are slippery and icy and proceed with extra caution
  • Keep your hands out of your pockets! Hands in your pockets while walking decreases your center of gravity and balance. 
  • Use a cane, walking stick or Nordic poles to help with balance. 
  • Shorten your strides to help with balance and stability.
  • Wait for vehicles to stop completely before crossing a road.
  • Plan your route on sidewalks, park trails, bike paths, high school tracks or residential streets that draw very few cars.
  • Always wear bright, visible clothing. A reflective vest or gear is optimal any time of day.
  • Walk with a buddy! The camaraderie will help to perk your spirits and motivate you to keep up a walking routine.

Be Smart

  • A winter walk should be done at a leisurely pace. Just the fact you are outdoors and moving will have its health benefits. There is no real added benefit to “racing”.
  • Start slowly to give your muscles a chance to warm up.
  • Bring water. Dry air is dehydrating and you do sweat in cold temperatures – even though you may not notice it.
  • Pay attention to the temperature and wind chill and know your comfort level. Wind can be deceiving in the cold. A good reference is:

    Winds = temperature drop
    10 mph = 15 degrees
    15 mph = 20 degrees
    20 mph = 25 degrees
    30 mph = 35 degrees

  • Always aim to wear three levels of clothing, with the outermost layer something that can be removed and carried if you get too warm.
  • Wear gloves, a hat and a neck gaiter. Over 30 percent of the body's heat is lost through the head. And cold hands can make your walk miserable.
  • Don’t wear clothes that are so bulky they impair movement and affect your posture and walking technique.
  • Wear sunglasses and sunblock. The sun and its reflections are often more intense in the winter than you realize. 
  • If you're going to carry something, use a backpack rather something slung over one shoulder or held in one hand. A backpack will help to minimize back, neck or shoulder pain.
  • Bring your cell phone with you and/or tell people your planned route.

Adjusting to a Winter Walk

Walking is a low intensity exercise and its benefits tend to be accumulative. This means that you can get close to the same benefits from two 30 minutes sessions as with one that’s an hour long. If it’s too cold, divide your walking time in half. By increasing your speed a bit, the caloric burn/fitness outcomes will be close.

To get maximum benefit from your walk, you should aim to get warm and slightly breathless but still be able to carry on a conversation. Nordic walking, or walking with poles, can make you work even harder because you're using your arms more. Even without poles or walking sticks, swinging your arms will increase the level of your workout.

Plan your route so you go into the wind on the way out and have it at your back on the way home. This way, the tough part will be over and you won't get so tired or cold from your sweat cooling. When walking downhill, take smaller steps, making sure the knees stay in line with the toes. Not only will this help you with balance, but you’ll also work your quadriceps muscles a little more.

After a long walk, it's important for you to rehydrate. Try drinking a glass of room temperature water shortly after you return indoors. It will be easier to drink than ice water. Then nestle in, in front of the fire and enjoy the beauty of the season. You deserve it!

Find more tips on walking and other related topics in our health library.