As I sit in my office writing this, it’s currently a balmy 5 degrees out with some light snow and yet I see two people cross country skiing on a trail so I wanted to write about how to protect yourself if you’re exercising in cold weather. Let’s briefly discuss what happens to our bodies when we are exposed to a cold environment. When we enter a cold environment vasoconstriction occurs, meaning out blood vessels tighten up, think of it as driving in a four-lane highway that merges into two. The reason for this is to limit heat loss and protect our core temperature. This is why you’ll feel your hands and toes become cold first when experiencing cold weather. When we start to feel cold and need to warm up, our bodies can involuntary start shivering. The purpose of shivering is to contract skeletal muscle to produce heat. If you start to shiver, this is a sign that you’re losing more heat than your body can produce and is a sign to get back inside or start moving slowly to produce more heat!
Hypothermia, medically speaking, occurs when core temperature is below 35 degree C or 95 degrees F. There are three types; mild, moderate, or severe. Mild hypothermia is the most common and I’m sure we’ve all experienced it. Shivering, feeling cold overall, and cold fingers and toes. When this occurs, get to warm shelter and place warm dry clothes on.
Moderate cases of hypothermia are more alarming. They include confusion, sleepiness, slurred speech, and a chance of behavior or appearance. We can become more fatigued with a potential of shivering to stop. Our coordination will be altered and our reaction time will decrease. When this occurs get to a warm area immediately and eat a warm meal and drink water.
Severe hypothermia is a medical emergency and occurs when our heart rhythm changes with the addition our core temperature falls below 32 degrees C or 89.6 degrees F. You’ll see a complete loss of shivering, confusion, visual disturbances, changing levels of consciousness, a lower blood pressure and respiratory rate. This is a true medical emergency so if this occurs call 911 and try to keep the individual warm and alert. Remove all wet clothing if applicable and hug the person to try and keep them warm.
Rain and wind can also increase the chances of hypothermia so it’s important to check the weather before heading outside to exercise. Our bodies can put us at a higher risk for hypothermia as well. Individuals with high subcutaneous fat thickness and muscle mass can maintain core temperatures better than individuals with less fat and muscle! The older and younger population are at an increased risk as well.
When exercising in the cold it’s important to know what the stages of hypothermia are and it’s always better to exercise in pairs so both individuals can monitor each other. Doing a warm up is critical before exercising to increase blood flow to the muscles to prevent injury. When sweating starts to occur it’s important to shed layers because the sweat will start to evaporate and evaporating is a cooling process and will decrease our core temperatures quickly. Limiting our time in the cold is crucial to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. If you’re exercising in a snowy environment, having waterproof clothes and equipment is highly recommended.
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