Safely enjoying the great outdoors

By Brian Paskowski, M.D.

How can you safely enjoy the Northwest’s great outdoors this fall and winter?

The Pacific Northwest landscape is, for many, the perfect playground for fall and winter. For others, the darker, colder months signal retreat – a time to shun the outdoors in favor of indoor sedentary fare such as reading, watching TV and eating.

Why not enjoy a little bit of both?

Leave the fair-weather fitness mindset behind this fall and winter. Northwest terrain is prime real estate for cold-weather workouts – including downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. Whether flying solo or adventuring with your family, these winter workouts are appropriate for people of all ages and can help build muscle, endurance and balance.

The health benefits of staying active in the winter months are many. But before you head out, consider what you’ll need to ensure the safest, most comfortable experience in the great outdoors.

Protect your skin

Unlike the summer months when more of your body is exposed, fall and winter tend to be about hiding in comfortable, warm layers. Still, if you’re skiing, snowboarding or walking the dog in the daytime hours, your face, neck and hands are soaking up the sun’s potent rays. Sunburn is likely if you’re not using protection. Make sure you’ve applied sunscreen before heading outdoors – particularly if you’re outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.

And even in the Northwest, where the sun seems to make only an occasional appearance, sunscreen is still a must, as clouds do little to buffer the effects of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Cumulative sun exposure without sunscreen protection can lead to skin cancer. Make sure to use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater on all exposed skin, including your face and lips, tips of your ears, and the back of your hands and neck.

The sun’s rays are typically stronger at higher altitudes. To avoid damage to your eyes, wear goggles or sunglasses that shield your eyes from the sun’s bright reflection off snow. Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays are ideal.

Be headstrong

Make helmets as much a part of your downhill skiing or snowboard get-up as goggles, gloves, snow pants and boots. A study concluded by the Canadian Medical Association, which concluded in February of this year, showed that helmets significantly reduced the risk of head injury among skiers and snowboarders. Find a helmet that suits your style and sport. If you’re a parent, make sure your child is fitted with a helmet on the slopes.

Stay warm, stay safe

Not all textiles are created equal. When it comes to dressing in layers, choose your fabrics wisely. Clothing made of wool, polypropylene, down or Thinsulate™ will help contain your body heat even if the clothing gets wet. For sustained outdoor activity in cold weather, cotton is ill-advised.

For your hands, consider mittens. Your dexterity may be compromised, but your ability to keep your fingers close together will provide added warmth and comfort. For feet, snug-fitting wool socks are a must.

Not wearing the proper clothing or adequate layers can put you at risk for prolonged exposure to cold, which can lead to hypothermia – an abnormally low body temperature. Usually associated with extremely cold temperatures, hypothermia also can occur at cool temperatures – above 40°F – if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands and slurred speech.

If you choose to be outdoors in cold weather this fall and winter, make sure you have proper layers and a change of dry, warm clothes.