Cover your face, wear a hat and stay hydrated to exercise safely all winter long


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

First of all, “cold” is what physiologists (people who study human function and structure) call a “stressor,” which means your body recognizes cold as something it needs to. accommodate to 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 conditions or high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about how long you’ll be outdoors and what types of activities are recommended for you in the winter.

Core temperature maintenance

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

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

However, there are still ways to reduce risk and improve comfort when exercising outdoors in cold weather. Here are some things to consider when deciding to exercise outdoors in the winter.

cover your skin

Reduce your exposed skin, wherever you can. Recently updated guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine state that frostbite, which is a “direct frost injury…to the surface of the skin”, can occur at as low as -3°C. 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 wind chill).

Frostbite can be accelerated by contact with cold materials (metal, snow, ice) and wet skin. Wear insulating clothing that has great moisture wicking ability 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 thermal comfort regulation, especially in windy conditions, making activities like sledding or downhill skiing more comfortable. Your facial skin can take a real beating — even in moderately windy conditions, your facial skin temperature can drop as much as 25°C.

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

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 at body temperature and 100% humidity. They do a very good job at rest, but during exercise it takes more effort to condition the air you breathe in.

Add cold air on top of high breath rates (as seen during exercise) and your lungs are truly challenged to warm and moisten each breath. Cooling of the airways is associated with a nervous system response and drying of the airways is associated with an inflammatory response, both of which can constrict the lungs (often referred to as cold air bronchoconstriction).

Activity in cold weather below 0 C at a moderate exercise intensity (fast walking pace) also results in respiratory symptoms, including a very common runny nose and a feeling of nose irritation (itchiness, burning sensation). For more strenuous exercise (such as strenuous running or cross-country skiing), symptoms increase and may include excess mucus, productive cough (clearing that mucus) and unproductive cough (irritating cough), chest tightness ( difficulty breathing), wheezing and sore throat; these symptoms may persist for up to 24 hours after training in cold weather.

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 mask can help some people capture moisture to humidify the next breath. Third, reduce your total exposure time to cold air, as even 30 minutes of moderate exercise can increase your symptoms and narrow your airways. And finally, drink enough water during prolonged cold spells, as you can lose up to 100 milliliters of water per hour due to strenuous breathing exercises in cold air.

The Mayo Clinic provides advice on exercise in the cold.

In preparation

Not being prepared for cold weather increases your overall risk of hypothermia and other cold-related injuries. In fact, more than half of deaths associated with natural weather events are due to cold – directly from accidental hypothermia (a significant drop in core temperature leading to death) or when hypothermia exacerbates 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, along with prolonged exposure and inadequate clothing. Other cold weather injuries include chilblains and chilblains, which can have serious health consequences if not treated promptly with proper medical attention.

Hope this helped you better understand some of the physiology behind how humans interact with cold air environments. More 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.

Michael Kennedy, Associate Professor, Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation, University of Alberta

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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