Exercising in the cold? Follow these tips to avoid hypothermia

The winter is officially upon us. That will mean sleet and rain for some, snow and ice for others—but cold weather for all. It is important to know how cold weather affects one’s health and well-being in order to avoid serious health consequences. 

We are well aware that we must check on the sick and the elderly during the cold winter months to make sure they have safe and sufficient heating. Similarly, we know we must spare infants and children from exposure. These groups are known to be at high risk when the temperatures drop.  Obvious activities, such as lifting heaving shovels of snow or pushing a stuck vehicle out of a snow bank are known to put a great deal of stress on the heart.

But did you know that even a beautiful walk through heavy, wet snow or a light winter jog may be threatening to one’s health as well? Many exercise enthusiasts who continue to train outdoors during the winter season have been known experience “accidental hypothermia.” Precautions must be taken to avoid this life-threatening condition.  

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 95° F. At these temperatures, the body is no longer capable of producing enough energy to keep its internal temperature warm enough to allow normal function of vital internal organs.

It has been said and bears repeating that the 1st casualty of hypothermia is common sense and reasoning. In fact, many victims of hypothermia have been found undressed in the frigid temperatures. We now know that this is a bizarre but common phenomenon among hypothermia victims. It is imperative that you plan outdoor activities with a warm body and sound mind. Identify the potential risk factors for hypothermia before venturing out. 

Some Risk factors for hypothermia include:

Air temperature:  Hypothermia is possible at temperatures even in the 50s if not prepared!  It has occurred in relative warm temperatures.

Wind Chill: We hear forecasts on the weather channels such as ‘the Temperature is X°’ with a Wind Chill of Y°.’ The wind chill is not the actual temperature but what the temperature feels like. This may give the wrong impression. Understand that the wind chill is not only what the temperature ‘feels like’ but is the actual temperature impact on your body! Pay attention to this number. You can go to the internet for a chart or wind chill calculator.

Moisture: Will you be encountering rain/sleet/snow? Do you expect to sweat? Between your first layer of clothing and your skin lies a very thin layer of air. Air is trapped there no matter how tight the first layer. The body warms that air which in turn warms the body. It is a very effective insulator. When that layer of air is replaced by water, the insulation becomes ineffective in cold weather. In fact, as the sweat or rain cools, it serves to cool the body even further!

Wear rain-resistant gear— layers of fabrics that will draw moisture away from the body and trap air between the layers. If you are exercising and intend to sweat, consider carrying dry clothes with you to change into at regular intervals.

Other gear: In addition to your layered garments, be sure to wear a hat to trap the heat that wants to escape from your head, along with gloves, scarf and waterproof footgear!

Age and health: Even if you are one of our many healthy and active ‘seasoned citizens’ your body’s thermo-regulatory system is not as efficient as it was when you were younger or ‘less seasoned.’ Bear this in mind and warm up well, indoors, before going out.  Come in before your core temperature drops and with plenty of time to warm back up!

Symptoms of hypothermia include loss of coordination, mental confusion, slow reactions, shivering and sleepiness. Heart failure causes most hypothermia-related deaths.

Some final points of advice:

  • Victims of hypothermia will not recognize it in themselves. Take charge.
  • Hypothermia is a 911 Emergency. Do not hesitate to call them.
  • The best, immediate treatment for a victim of hypothermia is to prevent further heat loss and get them warm. Warming must be done slowly and carefully, ideally in a hospital setting. 
  • NEVER encourage a potential hypothermia victim to jog or exercise to get them warm.  You will force the cold blood in their extremities to their heart and internal organs which can have devastating consequences.  
  • The best advice, as always, PREVENTION.

Stay warm! Stay dry!

-By Jim McCrossin, ATC

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