Exercising in cold climates during winter can test even the most dedicated fitness fan. But by planning wisely, you can maintain your motivation--and stay safe--in the weeks ahead.

In a study last year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that their lowest level of physical activity occurred in the winter, and the highest activity occurred in the spring. It's no wonder, with short days and freezing temperatures making it difficult to get inspired to work out. And what's more, exercising outside requires some precautions to stay safe.

You have to be smart when heading outdoors for winter workouts. If you're not prepared, you can quickly find yourself in a hazardous situation. When the temperature is zero and wind speed is 15 mph, for example, frost bite can occur in 30 minutes, according to the National Weather Service. Even a temperature of 60 can trigger hypothermia if you're not clothed properly, the Weather Service says.

Whether you're new to fitness or an experienced exerciser, keep these cold-weather tips in mind to stay fit and safe this winter.

  • Find a training partner or group. When others are counting on you to show up, you're much more likely to stick with your fitness routine. And the camaraderie helps you forget how cold you are.
     
  • Sign up for an event. Find a local 5K or 10K run in late winter or early spring. A goal like that will infuse your efforts with purpose.
     
  • If possible, exercise during mid-day. Not only is it warmer, but the exposure to sunlight can relieve the effects of seasonal affective disorder, which can cause depression during the winter months.
     
  • Go short and close. Keep workouts short and stay close to home for safety. Pick a loop in your neighborhood. If you want to extend your distance, simply do multiple loops.
     
  • Dress in layers. Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight clothing--air gets trapped between the layers, providing insulation. For the inner layer, look for moisture-wicking material. Outer layers should be waterproof.
     
  • Top it off. Wear a hat and cover your ears--you can lose 40 percent of your body heat from your head. In extreme cold, cover your mouth so your lungs are protected. Mittens are preferable to gloves in keeping your fingers warm.
     
  • Be reflective. In addition to brightly colored clothing, wear reflective material so drivers can see you. Some reflective tape on your front and back will help.
     
  • Don't forget to hydrate. You're still perspiring even in cold weather. Plan on sipping water every 15 minutes.
     
  • Tell a friend. Falling and getting injured is easy in icy conditions. So if you're running in remote areas, go with at least one other person. If you venture out alone, tell someone where you're going and how long you'll be gone.

If the weather gets too cold, windy or inclement, you should exercise indoors. If you can't make it to the gym, even doing some push-ups or deep-knee bends or walking up and down stairs are effective ways to get your heart rate up, build muscle and burn calories.

Tom Weede is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a certified health and fitness instructor with the American College of Sports Medicine, and a former senior editor for Men's Fitness magazine. He recently authored The Entrepreneur Diet, which provides a six-week menu plan and time-efficient exercises for anyone on a tight schedule.