This is it. This is the year you finally get in shape, shed those pounds or meet that fitness pledge you made at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31.
But do you have to build the new you in a hot, stuffy gym, cheek by jiggly jowl with a dozen other sweaty resolutionaries awaiting their turn on the elliptical machine?
No, you don’t. Our forgiving mid-Atlantic climate offers a variety of ways for you to adopt a fitness regimen outdoors this winter if, like some, that’s where you prefer to be. All it requires is outfitting yourself appropriately — which will cost you an initial cash outlay — and some common-sense planning. Pay attention to warmth, comfort, safety and injury prevention and you’ll be just fine.
According to the National Safety Council, there is little danger to a properly clothed individual exercising outdoors at 20 degrees Fahrenheit, even with a 30 mph wind. Normal temperatures for the Washington region range from 28 to 43 degrees in January and between 30 and 47 degrees in February, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
So let’s get you dressed and out the door.
Have a plan. We’re not going to explore exercise programs here; you can find ample advice online and in books, from coaches, instructors and clubs. But if it’s difficult to go from sedentary to active when the conditions are favorable, doing so when you’re also contending with the elements will require a little more discipline.
If you’re going to start a running or walking program, don’t go out on the coldest day of the year. Begin when it’s at least 30 or 35 degrees. If you want to jump on a bicycle, a 40-degree day without wind is probably the bottom line.
And start slowly.
Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, recommends remembering the acronym SMART: Your program should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timebound.
“Most people fail with running because they don’t know where to start,” says Robyn Gault, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Gaithersburg. “They go out and try to run as far as they can, as fast they can, and they don’t get very far.”
Your mom knew what she was talking about when she told you to dress in layers in the winter. Not only do layers keep you warm, but you can shed one if the temperature increases. When exercising under normal winter conditions, you need three: a quick-drying base layer that will keep moisture away from your skin, a second to provide warmth, and a light third layer to block the wind and ensure that you’ll be seen.
Cotton is verboten. It does a poor job of trapping warmth but an excellent job of retaining moisture, which means it will keep you cold and miserable. You don’t want a stitch of cotton in your outdoor winter fitness wardrobe. That includes socks, underwear and sports bras.
For most activities, your base layer should be long-sleeve and made of a synthetic material that wicks away sweat. Don’t be tempted to save money here. Cheaply made base layers with raised seams that irritate your skin can be a nightmare if you’re out for any length of time.
Many cyclists prefer a wool base layer, says Michael Esmonde, director of customer relations for CycleLife, an upscale bike shop in Georgetown. Wool sheds moisture but retains heat even better than synthetics, he says.
A mid-layer is typically thicker and often zips halfway down in case you need to cool off a bit. Cyclists will often wear jerseys and arm warmers instead of long-sleeve mid-layers, according to Esmonde.
Your outer layer is critical for two reasons: It must block the wind and make you visible to drivers. In all likelihood, you’ll be exercising early in the morning or after work, when temperatures are lowest and visibility poorest.
“Typically, when you get cold, you get cold because it’s windy,” says Gault.
That goes double for cyclists, whose gloves, shoes and cycling pants require extra wind-stopping material. Cycling shoes can be covered by booties. Wool socks are better than synthetics because, again, they retain heat, Esmonde says.
“If it’s stupid cold out, I’ll wear a balaclava” head covering, which exposes only the eyes, says Esmonde, who rides his bike eight miles to work regardless of temperature and conditions.
Outer shells for runners come in bright colors with reflective tabs. “Safety is reflectivity,” says Gault. Other options: A reflective vest or blinking lights. Cyclists typically mount a blinking red light on the rear of their helmets and a blinking white one on the front.
It almost goes without saying, but hats and gloves are essential. Easily removed if you become too warm, they are critical to retaining heat, Matthews says.
Don’t forget your sunblock just because it’s winter, and load up on the lip balm. You will undoubtedly chafe in other areas, and there are several products to choose from, including the ever-popular Bodyglide, a protective skin balm applied before working out.
It may be 30 degrees outside, but you’ll still be sweating. That means you have to hydrate. ACE guidelines call for you to drink 17 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before you head out, and to sip seven to 10 ounces every 15 minutes if you’re doing a moderately intense workout.
The streets are not your only choice for outdoor workouts. At least two outdoor pools, at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Silver Spring YMCA branches, are heated and remain open all winter, as long as the temperature is above 32 degrees and the wind chill stays above 25. On average, the pools, which are open seven days a week, close only 10 to 20 days between December and April, according to Jackie Dilworth, director of communications for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.
You must be a member to use either pool. About 100 to 150 people swim laps at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase pool each day, Dilworth said.
“A lot of people like to work out outside and can’t go running,” she said. “Some people prefer to be in the sun rather than smelling the chlorine” of indoor pools, she added. Triathletes also use the pool to acclimate to colder weather.
Some boot camps and fitness programs continue outdoors throughout the winter months. If planks in a cold parking lot before dawn are your cup of tea, a number of groups are available to accommodate you.
“There is no bad weather, only bad clothing,” Ginny Wright, who conducts her 13 weekly Body by Ginny classes outdoors in Arlington all winter, told me in an e-mail. When it rains or snows, her 200 students work out in covered areas. “It is unbelievably invigorating to jump around outside in the cold and get all pumped up for the day ahead.”
Do you exercise outdoors all winter?
Tell us about your routine and pass on tips to others who want to get started. Tell us in the comments.