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5 Ways Cold Weather May Affect Your Health and Physical Activity

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  • Written By: Frederick Health
5 Ways Cold Weather May Affect Your Health and Physical Activity

The winter months bring holidays, warm sweaters, and cold weather. But did you know they can also bring serious health risks? Cold weather can affect your mental and physical health and impact your physical activity. Being aware of these effects can help you stay safe this winter.

Increased Risk of Heart Attack

Your body must stay at a stable temperature for your organs to function properly. Cold weather puts stress on your cardiovascular system, causing your arteries and veins to tighten and your blood to thicken. When your arteries tighten, they become narrower, and your circulation decreases. Your heart must work that much harder to pump blood.

When you exercise, your heart rate naturally increases. Exercising in cold weather causes your heart to work harder than it would during a workout in a comfortable temperature. This can lead to a heart attack, especially if you have underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. When exercising in the cold, warm up beforehand and take frequent breaks.

Increased Risk of Asthma Attacks

Cold, dry air causes the air passages in the lungs to contract. If you have asthma, this means cold air can cause a significant decrease in lung function, making it difficult to breathe. This is especially the case if you exercise outside. During exercise, you breathe 40-60 times more per minute. Increased breathing when the air passages in your lungs contract can cause you to have an asthma attack. Always travel with your inhaler in cold weather. If you have an asthma attack, seek immediate medical help.

Increased Risk of Frostbite or Hypothermia

Hypothermia is caused when your body loses heat faster than it’s produced. Low body temperature can affect your brain, making you unable to think clearly or move well. As your body temperature lowers, your organs begin to shut down to preserve heat. Symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness.

Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing skin. It leads to loss of feeling and color in the skin and can permanently damage the body. It usually affects extremities like the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes. A white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness may signify frostbite.

To reduce your risk, always dress appropriately for the weather by covering your head, neck, and ears. If you exercise outside, wear layers, a hat, insulated gloves, and thick socks. If you suspect frostbite or hypothermia, go to the emergency room immediately.

Feelings of Depression

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in the seasons and it affects an estimated 10 million Americans. Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD include oversleeping, appetite changes, weight gain, and tiredness or loss of energy. The cause of SAD remains unknown, but some contributing factors include disruption of your biological clock and serotonin and melatonin levels—all of which are affected by the winter months.

Regular physical activity and a healthy diet may help, as they’re both associated with boosting serotonin levels. Talk to your Primary Care doctor about any symptoms or severe mood changes you experience.

Increased Joint Pain

Cold weather may increase joint pain, especially if you have arthritis. While there is still no clear cause why cold weather increases joint pain, studies have shown it could be explained by a change in atmospheric pressure, which pushes on the body from the outside and keeps tissues from expanding. Low temperatures can also thicken the fluid inside joints, making them feel stiff.

To prevent further joint pain, stop your hands, legs, and feet from losing heat by wearing weather-appropriate clothing. Continue to exercise, as it eases arthritis pain. Instead of walking or jogging outside, choose a different type of physical activity like taking an aerobics or yoga class, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and stretching or doing light exercises while watching TV. 

We invite you to listen to our latest podcast recording of Coffee with Cookie featuring Dr. Adedapo Ajayi, an orthopedic surgeon with Frederick Health Medical Group Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. This episode provides helpful insight into joint pain management and how to stay safe this winter.

While the cold weather may affect health in unexpected ways, you can keep track of your health with regular checkups. Schedule a visit with Primary Care today.