Tips for Exercising in Cold Weather

March 01, 2021

By: Dr. Rebecca Carl

The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the opportunities for children and adolescents to participate in organized sports and other forms of exercise.  Even when we are trying to maintain social distancing, it’s important for children to get physical activity.  Many families have a difficult time finding a safe place for their kids to be active. While Chicago’s spring months may offer some warmer days, it’s important to keep in mind steps we can take to help our kids stay active all-year.

Proper clothing is crucial for enjoying the outdoors when it’s cold out.  Layering clothing can protect children from the elements. Have your children wear a base layer that can wick away sweat, a middle insulation layer (like fleece) to keep heat in, and an outer waterproof layer to protect against wet conditions like sleet and snow.  Winter accessories including hat, mittens, boots are also important.  Snow pants are great for wet, snowy weather. Scarves can cause injuries if they get caught on things like playground equipment  and bike wheels so neck gators may be a safer choice.  Make sure children have a chance to change their clothing if they get wet.

In additional to warm clothing, children should wear the right protective gear for their activities.  When there’s no snow on the ground, kids can have fun biking and riding a scooter in the winter but should still wear properly fitting helmets.  Helmets are designed to fit snugly against the skull so you shouldn’t wear a hat underneath your helmet.  Ear coverings may be used as long as they don’t get in the way of the helmet’s fit. 

Children should also wear helmets for skiing, snowboarding and sledding.  When sledding, look for uncrowded, gentle slopes without obstacles like trees that don’t end near roads or other hazards. Sleds with a steering mechanism can help prevent collisions. 

Ice skating is another activity where finding a safe environment is important.  Children should skate on smooth surfaces and should avoid lakes or ponds unless an adult can verify that the ice is at least 6 inches thick.  New skaters should make sure they have plenty of space around them.  In addition to helmets, wrist pads and knee pads can offer additional protection against injury.

As the weather gets colder, our bodies have to acclimatize to the new weather patterns.  If your children haven’t spent much time out of doors recently, start with short periods of outdoor time when it’s cold. Even children who are used to the cold weather and seem unbothered by it, should take indoor breaks when the temperatures drop.  Remember that windchill can make the cold more dangerous. There may be some cold, windy days that make outdoor play unsafe. Sports with higher exposure to wind like cycling and speed skating can make kids more susceptible to hypothermia and other cold related injury.

It’s also important to keep kids hydrated.  We typically think of encouraging children to take water breaks during the hot, humid months.  But children are susceptible to dehydration in winter too. 

Many of us don’t think of the cold weather months in Chicago as a great time to be outside, but with proper precautions and clothing, we can set a great example for our kids and keep up a fitness routine outdoors. 

Dr. Rebecca Carl is an assistant professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and an attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. She completed fellowships in both non-operative pediatric orthopaedics and primary care sports medicine.