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Exercising Outdoors in the Winter and Your Heart

Snowshoe at DHMC

Exercise in the cold can put stress on the cardiovascular system, as well as cause symptoms such as chest pain, chest discomfort or being short of breath.

Merle Myerson, MD, EdD

When the temperature dips into the single digits, outdoor activities can be a challenge, especially for those with cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease or other heart problems. “Exercise in the cold can put stress on the cardiovascular system, as well as cause symptoms such as chest pain, chest discomfort or being short of breath,” says Dartmouth-Hitchcock cardiologist Merle Myerson, MD, EdD.

Myerson has the following suggestions for exercising safely when it’s cold outside:
 

  • Wear warm clothes that wick moisture away, dress in layers, wear a hat and carry hand and foot-warmers for extra warmth, if needed. “Check the temperature and the wind chill and wear wind-blocking clothes,” says Myerson. “A 20-minute walk will be harder when it’s cold and there’s a wind chill. Exercising at high altitude can also impact your cardio-respiratory abilities, although this should not be a problem for most people at local mountaintops.”
     
  • If you have a cardiac condition, such as coronary artery disease or heart valve disease, check with your cardiologist about possible outdoor exercise limitations. Be especially cautious when shoveling snow. “If there is heavy wet snow, you should use a snow blower. If you do shovel, use a smaller shovel so that you’re picking up smaller loads,” Myerson says. “Generally, you should avoid activities where you are straining or grunting.”
     
  • Understand your exercise capabilities. “If you work out regularly, then you can exercise roughly the same amount of time outside,” says Myerson. “But if you are new to exercise, check with your provider first. The three components of exercise are intensity, duration and frequency. You may want to start with shorter durations, three to five times a week, with the goal of gradually building up.”
     
  • Be aware of the signs of hypothermia and frostbite. “If you are shivering uncontrollably and can’t think clearly, get out of the cold and immediately get help because you may have hypothermia,” says Myerson. “Frostbite is also something to be aware of, especially when there’s a wind chill. If the affected area is turning white, it is important to act quickly.”
     
  • Stay hydrated. “Fluid intake is important when you’re active, whether you are outdoors or indoors,” says Myerson.
     
  • If it’s too cold or icy outside, exercise indoors. “Walk laps inside a shopping center or a ‘big box’ store or go to a gym or fitness center,” says Myerson. “We want people to be active year-round, so you should definitely seek out other options.”

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