Few people love cold weather. We tolerate it, but in the back of our minds are visions of spring and the smell of freshly mowed grass, colorful flowers, and the sound of birds singing! What you might not realize is that cold weather can impact your health and not in a positive way. No surprise if you don’t enjoy climbing out from under the covers on a chilly winter morning, but the cold, dry air and low temperatures can have other effects on your body and mind. Let’s look at six ways cold weather impacts your health and wellbeing and lifestyle changes you can make to stay healthy and happy in the winter.
Increased Risk of Viral Infections
With winter comes the threat of colds and respiratory viruses. One reason we catch more colds in the winter is that people spend more time indoors around other folks who are carrying viruses. When someone with a cold or respiratory virus coughs or sneezes, they release infectious particles of different sizes that can make their way into our own nasal passages and lungs. Plus, the particles can live on surfaces for varying amounts of time. Some studies also suggest that chilly temperatures increase the risk of viral infections by lowering the temperature of your nasal passages, making it easier for a virus to gain access, attach, and cause an infection. Also, the air is dryer in the winter and dehydrated nasal passages create easy access for viruses.
What to Do:
Wrap a scarf around your nose and mouth when you head out on a chilly day. Then check the humidity of the environment where you live and work. It matters! If it’s below 50%, invest in a humidifier to send more moisture into the air and your nasal passages. Also, take common-sense precautions at work by washing your hands more often, and avoid that coworker who can’t stop sneezing and coughing. In addition, clean your desk with a germ-killing solution several times per day.
Higher Risk of Fitness Injuries viral infections
If you work out in the cold by running or cycling, the winter chill may boost your risk of injury. It’s not just ice on the sidewalks that can trip you up but stiff muscles and tendons. When it’s cold, your muscles and tendons are less flexible, and your movements are less fluid. That boosts your risk of an injury. Plus, your performance will suffer from stiff tendons and muscles.
What to Do:
Do a longer warm-up to increase the temperature of your muscles and tendons before heading out into the cold. If it’s very cold, take your workout indoors where it’s warmer.
Vitamin D Shortfall
Most people rely on sunlight to keep their vitamin D at a healthy level as foods, except for fortified foods, salmon, eggs, and milk aren’t a good source of the sunshine vitamin. In the winter, you’re more covered up and spend less time outdoors. A low vitamin D level can make your muscles feel weak and, possibly, increase your risk of catching colds and flu viruses.
What to Do:
Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level and see where you stand. If your level is low, they can recommend an appropriate strength of vitamin D supplements to get your levels into a healthier range.
Higher Blood Pressure
The results of a recent study found that living in a cooler home can raise blood pressure. If you have a low or normal blood pressure, that might not be a problem, but it could be if you’re pre-hypertensive or hypertensive. The study found that blood pressure rose by about a half-point, systolic and diastolic, with every 1 degree Centigrade drop in room temperature. Plus, going outside in the cold can further raise your blood pressure.
What to Do:
Keep the temperature of your home around 70 degrees F. One interesting finding from the study above is that subjects who exercised regularly experienced less of a blood pressure rise with cold temperatures. So, make sure you’re moving your body! When you go outside, double up on the clothing and wear a hat or scarf.
Higher Risk of Heart Attack
As mentioned, cold weather raises blood pressure, and that puts an added strain on your heart. If you’re young and healthy, strenuous outdoor exercise, such as shoveling snow, likely isn’t dangerous. However, if you have hypertension or underlying heart disease, sudden exertion could trigger a heart attack. Heart attacks are more common in the winter, as the cold causes vasoconstriction and a rise in blood pressure and heart rate.
What to Do:
Know your risk factors for a heart attack and your fitness level. Don’t push a heavy snowblower or shovel a big pile of heavy snow if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure. Make sure people close to you are cautious too.
A Drop in Mood
It’s not very motivating when you look outside and see a cold, gray day. Most people don’t feel as energetic in the winter. However, some people have a more serious case of the doldrums called seasonal affective disorder. As many as 20% of Americans meet the criteria for seasonal affective disorder, a seasonal form of depression.
What to Do:
Expose your eyes to sunlight as early in the morning as possible. Watch the sun come up! This helps set your internal biological clock in a healthy manner. If you go to work early in the morning and don’t get sun exposure during the day, invest in a light therapy box. These devices emit natural light that mimics exposure to sunlight without the risk of sunburn. Reputable brands filter out harmful ultraviolet light that can damage your skin and eyes but do your research and buy one that releases as little UV light as possible. Using a lightbox is most effective if you use it early in the morning.
On the Bright Side
One benefit of cold weather is it can turn on metabolically active brown fat, so you burn more calories even at rest. That might offer a small advantage if you’re trying to get leaner.
The Bottom Line
Despite the drawbacks of cold weather, breathing in the crisp, cool air can be exhilarating. So. enjoy winter, keep moving, and take these steps to reduce the downsides of cold weather on your health.
- com. “Cold Weather Can Raise Blood Pressure”
- com. “High blood pressure? Turn up your thermostat”
- J Clin Invest. 2012;122(2):545-552. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI60433.
- BBC News. “Common cold ‘prefers cold noses”