Will Working Out In The Cold Make Me Sick?

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
Working out outside has had a resurgence in the past couple of years, even after gyms were reopened and classes were back on the timetable. It was a way to escape the home, get some (relatively) fresh air and get your blood pumping. While the weather varied, it was more often than not quite pleasant to be outside with the occasional glimpses of sunlight warming your face. Every aspect of it felt good for you.
This is not the case anymore. Moving into the winter months makes the idea of going for a jog in the dark and wind and rain feel exceptionally uninviting. And not only that, years of everyone's mum reminding us to "wrap up warm or catch your death of cold," has led to the pervasive idea that cold weather must be bad for us in some way. Surely we’re only going to get sick if we do our HIIT in the park when it's 14°C? It feels like it defeats the point to be working out in an environment that might induce illness.
Fortunately, (or unfortunately depending on how much you feel like exercising) the idea that going outside in freezing temperatures will increase your risk of exposure to the nasty colds and flus we associate with winter (as well as the big COVID-19), isn’t necessarily true. According to Dr Luke Powles, Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Clinics, exercising outside as opposed to inside can decrease the risk of getting sick as the natural ventilation helps prevent the spread of germs. In fact, he says, "when done safely, exercising outside during the winter is good for your health, boosting your immune system, thus reducing your chances of getting ill.” Plus, the benefits of exercise for your mental health can improve your immune system, as it functions best when you’re not stressed.
“But what about rain?” I hear you, me and every character from a Jane Austen novel cry. The idea that being caught in the rain makes you more likely to get sick just feels true. But as with exercising in the cold, being outdoors, even in the rain, will reduce your chance of catching or spreading germs thanks to the increased ventilation. But while your chance of catching a bug will decrease, being outdoors in the rain may increase your chances of frostbite or hypothermia as your body loses heat quicker when you’re wet. Whilst a cold July day in certain parts of Australia is unlikely to lead to frostbite, when it gets really cold this risk can be exacerbated depending on what you are wearing. If you’re wearing workout gear that absorbs water (like trainers when you run through puddles) you will be further exposed to lower temperatures.
“Numbness or a stinging feeling on your skin, hands, feet or face can be the early signs of frostbite." Dr Powles advises before adding that this is more likely when the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius, especially if there are strong winds (which is unusual in Australia). "For hypothermia, initial symptoms include severe shivering, fatigue, and loss of coordination or coherent speech.”
He advises that you should stop exercising if you are experiencing either of these and find somewhere to safely warm up. If symptoms don’t improve, seek medical help.
There are other risks to taking your exercise outside in the winter. Jason Bone, Head of Strength at FLEX Chelsea points out that injuries are more common. “Cold muscles will be tight and prone to injury. Plus, training in the rain is a health hazard as you can easily slip.” However these are problems that are definitely manageable: “I would advise people to definitely invest in good waterproofs, thermals and decent footwear to avoid slipping in the wet,” says Jason. “I would also suggest doing at least two mobility exercises and a significant warmup prior to heading out in the rain or cold to prepare the joints and muscles.” If you are in a position to invest in some new winter workout gear, look for items that have been designed specifically with the idea of locking in heat while also keeping you dry as you work out in lower temperatures.
Finally, it’s always good to be mindful of how any other underlying conditions could affect your ability to exercise outside. Dr. Powles points to asthma and Raynaud’s – a circulatory condition – as issues you should speak to your doctor about first if you want to work out outside. Similarly, you should check with your GP if you’re taking medication. “Some medicines like decongestants – which are more common during the winter – may increase your heart rate, so you should be mindful of this before undertaking exercise.”
Overall though, exercising outside when it's cold shouldn't really be that much of an issue. And with this new lockdown in place and gyms closed for at least a month, it just might be something you'll have to get used to.

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