Cover your face, wear a hat, and stay hydrated for safe exercise during the winter


Let’s face it, winter in Canada is a reality we cannot ignore. And for many of us, that means getting outside and getting in the cold for work, housework, and exercise. But there are ways to improve your comfort and safety while being active outdoors in cold weather.

First of all, “cold” is what physiologists (people who study human structure and function) call a “stressor,” which means your body recognizes cold as something it needs to deal with. stay in homeostasis (when your body functions are stable).

We can immerse ourselves in different types of cold – including cold air and cold water – where the cold environment can be accentuated by wind and snow or rain. Here are some guidelines for exercising in cold air – there are different tips for swimming in cold water.

If you have underlying heart problems or high blood pressure, ask your doctor how long you should be outdoors and what kinds of activities are recommended for you in the winter.

Maintaining core temperature

Interestingly, in a naked or semi-nude state, your body begins to recognize the cold as a stressor at around 28.5 ° C. At this air temperature, your body’s coping mechanisms kick in. game to ensure the maintenance of your core temperature. This is why when you get out of a shower or wear little clothing (like lying on a beach in summer), you often shiver.

Adding insulating clothing to your body lowers the temperature at which you start to experience cold stress. In cold environments, our bodies produce a lot of heat when they use energy to move our muscles for activities like shoveling snow or cross-country skiing. So if we wear the proper insulating clothing and do enough muscle work, we can feel quite comfortable – this is called thermal comfort – in cold to very cold weather.

However, there are still ways to reduce the risk and improve comfort when exercising outside in cold weather. Here are some things to think about when making decisions about exercising outside in the winter.

Dressing appropriately for the weather can protect you and increase your enjoyment of the activities.

Cover your skin

Shrink your exposed skin, wherever you can. The recently updated guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine indicate that frostbite, which is a “direct freezing injury … to the surface of the skin” can occur at as little as -3 ° C. Tissues with less blood flow, such as the hands, feet and head are more vulnerable, especially when the cold air is extreme (less than -15 ° C air temperature or -27 ° C cooling wind).

Frostbite can be accelerated by contact with cold materials (metal, snow, ice) and by damp skin. Wear highly absorbent insulated clothing to wick moisture away from the skin and keep your head, feet and hands covered at all times!

Your face should also be covered for several reasons. Covering the cheeks, forehead, nose and neck improves the regulation of thermal comfort, especially in windy weather, making activities like sledding or downhill skiing more comfortable. Your facial skin can take a real hit – even in moderate wind conditions, your facial skin temperature can drop by 25 ° C.

If you have any underlying chronic conditions, including high blood pressure or heart disease, you should cover your face. Exposing a naked face to cold – as little as -5 C – engages parts of the nervous system that can raise blood pressure. Simply wearing a toque and scarf can reduce this increase.

a young child with bare hands and red fingers in the snow
Frostbite and frostbite can lead to serious health consequences if not treated promptly with proper medical care.

Protect your lungs and breathing

Our lungs are particularly vulnerable to cold air environments, where exercise actually increases stress on the lungs in winter conditions. Your lungs, for good reason, want to warm and humidify the air we breathe to body temperature and 100% humidity. They do a really good job at rest, but during exercise it takes more effort to condition the air you breathe.

Add cold air on top of the high respiratory rates (as seen during exercise) and your lungs are really challenged to warm and humidify with each breath. Airway cooling is associated with a nervous system response and airway dryness is associated with an inflammatory response, both of which can lead to constriction of the lungs (often referred to as cold air bronchoconstriction).

Activity in cold weather below 0 C at moderate intensity of exercise (brisk walking pace) also causes respiratory symptoms, including very frequent runny nose and a feeling of irritation in the nose (itchy rash). , burning sensation). For more intense exercise (such as a difficult run or cross-country skiing), symptoms increase and may include excess mucus, productive cough (clearing that mucus) and unproductive cough (itchy cough), chest tightness (difficulty breathing), wheezing and sore throat; these symptoms can persist for up to 24 hours after cold weather training.

There are several steps you can take to reduce these symptoms. First, slowing down the intensity of your exercise gives your body a chance to condition the air with each breath. Second, covering your mouth with a chamois, scarf, or cold-weather mask can help trap moisture to moisten the next inhale. Third, reduce your total exposure time to cold air, because even 30 minutes of moderate exercise can increase your symptoms and airway constriction. And lastly, drink enough water during prolonged periods of cold weather, as you can lose up to 100 milliliters of water per hour due to intense breathing exercises in cold air.

The Mayo Clinic provides advice on exercise in cold weather.

Be prepared

Not being prepared for cold weather increases your overall risk for hypothermia and other cold-related injuries. In fact, more than half of deaths associated with natural weather events are due to cold weather – directly from accidental hypothermia (severe drop in core temperature leading to death) or when hypothermia worsens a pre-existing condition. Note that accidental hypothermia can also occur in moderate cold weather, potentially putting outdoor enthusiasts at risk.

It is also well documented that alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for accidental hypothermia, with prolonged exposure and inadequate clothing. Other cold injuries include frostbite and frostbite, which can have serious health consequences if not treated promptly with proper medical attention.

Hope this has helped you better understand some of the physiology behind how humans interact with cold air environments. Most importantly, I hope you can use some of these tips to improve your enjoyment and safety in winter, especially when the temperature drops well below 0 C.


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