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How can I protect my health in cold weather?

It’s not your imagination: it really is more difficult to get around outdoors in the cold weather. When the mercury dips, you may need to take some precautions, especially if you have a health condition.

“When we breathe in really cold air, our body needs to warm it up, and that in itself takes energy to do,” says Stephanie Naulls, registered kinesiologist with the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative at Women’s College Hospital. “On top of that process, doing whatever it is you’re doing – walking, carrying groceries – you’re now having almost double the work on your body. And if you have a chronic condition or health issue, it becomes really challenging for you to function.”

Winter obstacles such as snow on the ground or slippery surfaces can make getting around even more difficult. So for many people, particularly those with health issues, cold weather and wintry conditions can make it challenging to do basic things like grocery shopping, banking and going to appointments.

Weather matters

How cold is too cold? Naulls says that when the windchill hits -17 C, it’s time to think about limiting your time outdoors. However, many women who have a health issue such as asthma, a heart condition or Reynaud’s disease start to experience problems when the windchill hits -10 C.

She recommends to patients in the WCHI program that they plan activities based on the weather forecast.

“You have to pick your days,” Naulls says. “Be aware of what the weather forecast is when you’re planning your week. If a cold windchill is expected, maybe you don’t want to make plans on that day. Maybe that’s the day you want to stay home and do some of your inside chores.”

Of course, you can’t stay indoors all winter, so Naulls offers three tips for venturing out in the cold:

  • Dress for the weather: Wear a good coat that blocks the wind, with a layer of fleece or wool underneath. Top it off with a hat. A good scarf is also important. Be sure to wear it over your face so it covers your mouth and nose.

    “You want to be able to humidify and warm that cold air before you actually take it in,” Naulls explains. That’s why it’s important to choose a scarf in a fabric that’s thick and fairly solid. Knit scarves let the air through, so look for fleece or tightly woven fabrics instead.

  • Warm up: Regardless of what you’re going outside to do, whether it’s walking to the bus, taking a walk for exercise, or going grocery shopping, you need to warm up before you actually go outside.

    Before you get all of your outdoor gear on, do some warm-up activity: a bit of marching on the spot, pumping your arms up and down, or any full-body movements that you’re comfortable with.

  • Take it easy: “When you do get outside, you need to start whatever you’re doing slower, so you’re giving your body a chance to warm up outside in that colder temperature before you get into your natural pace that you would like to walk at,” Naulls says.

Staying indoors doesn’t mean you have to give up fitness. There are plenty of ways to exercise indoors, even if you aren’t a gym member.

“You don’t need equipment,” Naulls says. It can be as simple as walking, marching or jogging on the spot (even while watching TV) – no treadmill required. Try a DVD for at-home pilates, yoga or good old-fashioned calisthenics. Mall walking is an inexpensive way to stay fit in winter. Organized mall walking programs usually have very affordable membership fees, and offer the opportunity to walk when the mall is closed to shoppers.

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 22, 2014

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