Fit Farmer — Ep. 12: Tips for staying active in cold weather

We live in Canada and I get annoyed when people complain about the cold rather than embracing it. Much of society has become so accustomed to being comfortable all the time that when we hit an extreme cold stretch we lose our minds, even as Canadians.

Yes, extreme cold is not ideal for machinery to operate in; however, I like to think that I am not as simple as a combustion engine or hydraulic pump. We are complex beings that can adapt to operate in any conditions, including extreme hot or cold. Two summers ago we discussed exercise in extreme heat on the Fit Farmer podcast, and now I want to discuss methods to managing extreme cold and not just managing but embracing and thriving in extreme cold. I have been doing a deep dive into the health benefits of cold for a couple months now and the deeper I research the more intrigued I have become. This post and the accompanying Fit Farmer podcast are some content, tips, and tricks on how to embrace your inner iceman.

If you are going to study embracing the cold you need not dig any deeper than a Google search of Wim Hof, otherwise known as the “Iceman.” Wim has spent most of his adult life training people to tap into their inner physiological systems while setting 26 world records all around managing and exercising in extreme cold. He has taken embracing the cold to a level far beyond what society and science thought possible. (Learn more about surviving extreme cold in What doesn’t Kill Us).

As farmers, we are outdoors far more than much of the workforce — we are calving, shipping grain, and, unfortunately on years like last, even harvesting in extreme cold. Since we have no choice on the conditions we work, it is only our mindset that keeps us from enjoying exercise during our harsh Canadian winters. Unfortunately, when we hit a cold stretch it often throws our fitness routine into a tailspin. Despite the fact that indoor training options are abundant, getting outside in all weather conditions, in my opinion, is the key to any fitness program. So let’s look at the benefits along with tips and tricks to getting outside. (summary continues below)

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Benefits

Boosting the Immune System: We have all heard this from our mothers… “put on a coat or you are going to catch a cold.” The reality is that with exposure to cold, our body adapts and strengthens our immune system. This adaptation strengthens our body’s ability to fight off colds, flus, and foreign invaders.

Improve the Cardiovascular System: Training in the cold forces the heart to work harder and thus improves the training effect on the cardiovascular system. Not only does the heart supply blood to the active muscles, but it also works to increase circulation to the limbs in cold temperatures.

Burn more Calories: Cold weather will max out your caloric burn. The body is working much harder to keep its core temperature regulated. As the body works to stay warm, the metabolism is kicked into overdrive and your body burns more calories and fat.

Boosts Mental Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a legitimate condition and one of the biggest reasons to get outdoors and embrace the cold. It is scientifically proven that the hormonal response to cold positively affects mood and mindset.

Variety in Training: This is one of the biggest reasons to embrace the cold and winter. As Canadians we have so many amazing activities during our winters. Once we create a tribe who embraces the cold winters fly by. I absolutely love the cold and winters — this is my time to cross-country ski, fat bike, snowshoe, run, and take on the elements in a way that is so very different from summer training.

Tips and Tricks 

To improve your comfort and safety while exercising in the cold, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following tips:

Wear layers: Several thin layers are warmer than one heavy layer. Layers are also easier to add or remove and thus, better regulate your core temperature. The goal is to keep the body warm, minimize sweating, and avoid shivering.

Cover your head: Your head should be covered while exercising in the cold, because heat loss from the head and neck may be as much as 50 per cent of the total heat being lost by your body.

Cover your mouth: To warm the air before you breathe it, use a scarf or mask. Do this especially if breathing cold air causes angina (chest pain) or you are prone to upper respiratory problems.

Stay Dry: Wet, damp clothing, whether from perspiration or precipitation, significantly increases body-heat loss.

Keep your feet warm and dry: Use a fabric that will wick perspiration away from the skin. Polypropylene, wool, or other fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin and retain insulating properties keep the body warm when wet. Invest in good socks!

Stay hydrated: Dehydration affects your body’s ability to regulate body heat and increases the risk of frostbite. Fluids, especially water, are as important in cold weather as in the heat. Avoid consuming alcohol or beverages containing caffeine, because these are dehydrating.

Eat for winter exercise: What you eat during cold-weather exercise can help you avoid serious cold-related issues. Plan ahead and pack the right snacks for sustained energy in the cold.

Avoid alcohol: Alcohol dilates blood vessels and increases heat loss, so the odds of experiencing a hypothermic event increase. Alcohol can also impair judgment to the extent that you may not make the best or brightest decisions in a cold-weather emergency. It’s best to leave the alcohol behind when you head out into the cold.

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