Well, we’re officially in the thick of it! Winter, that is… For many of us, it means our physical activity is reduced due to the cold weather, but beyond just making us less interested in exercising outdoors, the cold can affect our body’s organ systems as well. This affects us all differently, but it tends to universally impact the cardiovascular system more than anything else. The reason you ask? Well as you may know, the cardiovascular system is composed of numerous vessels that distribute blood throughout the body in addition to the heart itself. When it’s cold outside, the cardiovascular system increases blood pressure and heart rate, while also reducing the amount of blood that is pumped close to the surface of the skin. It all happens in an effort to keep your body’s core organ systems as warm as possible. While this response has been refined over millions of years of evolution to keep us alive in the harshest of climates, it does result in one’s airway passages narrowing, which can make breathing more difficult.
A recent article written by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes who exercise outdoors during winter inhale large amounts of cold air and end up shifting from nasal to mouth breathing during exercise. (Remember when we talked about the importance of nasal breathing before? Well believe it or not, maintaining nasal breathing in the cold is especially important, even if it can seem tougher than in the warmth due to constricted blood vessels and airways! It’s been shown that the dryness of winter air, in combination with mouth breathing can actually cause bronchial damage. And while the respiratory system may seem separate from the cardiovascular system, the truth is that they are fundamentally linked. The cold can really have an effect on our overall health!
Chilly weather can be especially vicious to those who have respiratory conditions (like asthma). One of the best ways to combat the cold’s effect on one’s respiratory system is through nasal breathing, which not only warms up the air but also adds moisture. As I’m sure you can imagine, this makes breathing much easier on the lungs as well as other parts of the lower respiratory system.
One of our biggest concerns at Hale, is making sure that people not only prioritize their breathing health, but also understand it. After all, shouldn’t you be the one most informed about how you can keep your own body and mind healthy? While athletes are the most susceptible to damaging their respiratory system in the cold weather, we should all make sure that we are taking care of our airways, especially in the winter. And guess what, we’re right in the middle of it! Making sure that you are paying attention to not only your body, but the environment around you is incredibly important to maintaining your breathing health.
Tips for Protecting Yourself when you Exercise in the Cold
Just because it’s cold outside doesn't mean you can’t exercise! Well, if you’re in seriously sub-freezing weather, maybe think twice, but for most of us it is doable. Here are some tips to help you protect yourself from damage or injury as a result of the cold.
- Focus on nasal breathing! If you need to exert yourself slightly less to allow you to keep breathing through your nose, try going a bit easier on yourself.
- Layer up. Make sure you keep yourself warm and if possible, add a synthetic material (or natural material like wool) closest to the skin to allow perspiration to wick away. Staying warm will help your airways stay open, allowing for (you guessed it!) nasal breathing.
- Wear a hat! Fifty percent of body heat is lost through the head so be sure to protect yourself on all fronts, including your neck and hands. If you decide to wear a scarf, you can even try breathing through it to help warm up the air your breathe!
- Stay hydrated. Many people think that just because they aren’t sweating in the sweltering heat, they don’t have to mindfully hydrate...wrong! Don’t forget the most important aspect of keeping yourself healthy during exercise!
- Try going to an indoor gym. If it’s simply too cold to stay safe while exercising, try hitting an indoor gym or exercise class to get your workout in. You may even find a new routine you really like!
- Listen to your body. You and you alone know the limits of your body. Don’t push yourself too hard in an environment you are not comfortable with. Use common sense, and make sure you focus on feeling good above all else. That goes for body and mind!