The colder winter months are upon us but that doesn't mean that you have to take your physical activities indoors. The winter provides an opportunity to enjoy specific activities such as: skiing, sledding, snow boarding and ice skating; but outdoor enthusiasts can still enjoy walking, jogging and biking by following these simple rules for exercising in the cold.

The biggest concern for individuals participating in outdoor activities is the risk of frost bite and hypothermia. Frostbite is freezing of body tissue and usually affects the extremities, ears and nose. Symptoms include a loss of feeling and a white pale appearance. Hypothermia is the result of abnormally low body temperature resulting from heat loss. The symptoms consist of uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion. Both of these conditions can be dangerous and require immediate medical attention and re-warming of the body.

Heat loss can be minimized by paying attention to insulation and environmental conditions. An individual can control heat loss by insulating the body with clothing. Clothing is a good insulator because it creates an air trap preventing heat from being conducted away from the body. The clothing selected should trap air but still allow sweat to pass through and away from the body. By layering clothing, an individual has the ability to change the amount of insulation as weather conditions vary. There are many new products on the market for outdoor activities that provide such layering and insulation. Stay away from cotton sweats and tightly woven materials as these materials will absorb and retain water and increase the amount of heat loss.

The most important areas of the body to insulate are the feet, hands and head. It has been found that as much as 50 percent of body heat can be lost from the head alone. The hands and feet are specifically venerable because, in cold temperatures, blood is shunted away from the extremities and towards the internal core and organs.

The environment is an important consideration when exercising outdoors. The main rule is to always check the air temperature and wind chill factor before exercising. Data from the National Safety Council shows little danger to an individual who are properly clothed exercising in temperatures of 20° F with a 30 m.p.h. wind. But, skin exposed to the combined effects of temperature and wind below -20 ° F can be dangerous. In extreme cold and wind conditions an individual should use a scarf or mask over the nose and mouth to warm the air being inhaled. The best place to check the environmental conditions is the local weather channel and their Web site: www.weatherchannel.com which provides a wind chill chart.

So go ahead and enjoy the outdoors in the cold by being aware of the environmental conditions and then dressing accordingly.

Susan Herr, M. Ed. is Community Health Initiatives Director for YMCA of the Brandywine Valley

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