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Cold-Weather Exercise Tips

You feel cold most in your fingers, ears and toes. During World War II, gunners on the B-17 bombers complained bitterly about frozen hands, ears and toes. The Air Force added special insulation to their gloves, hats and boots, and they stopped complaining but they suffered frostbite on the skin of their necks and front of their chests. They had unzipped their jackets because they didn’t feel cold.

How You Get Frostbite
Your normal skin temperature is a degree or two below the internal body temperature of 98.6 degrees F. When your internal body temperature starts to drop, your brain tries to preserve heat by sending a message to the nerves in your hands and feet to close the blood vessels there. With decreased blood flow, the skin temperature of your hands and feet drops rapidly. When your skin temperature reaches 59 degrees Fahrenheit, your brain sends signals to open up blood vessels in your hands, causing your fingers to turn red, burn and itch. This is called the "hunting response" and is normal. You should get out of the cold immediately when your hands or feet turn red and start to itch and burn. If you don’t get out of the cold, the blood vessels in your hands and feet will close down again and the temperature will continue to drop even more rapidly to below freezing. You will suffer frostbite and may lose your fingers and toes.

Keep Your Hands Warm
To help keep your hands warm on cold days, wear:
* an inner layer of thin gloves made from loosely-woven material that permits sweat to pass through. Gloves as an inner layer keep your hands warmer than mittens do because they grip your fingers tightly and the best inner insulation should be as close to the skin as possible. They should be made of material that allows sweat to pass through, such as polypropylene or wool.
* a middle layer of a more tightly woven-thick set of gloves, and
* an outer layer of mittens that do not let wind or water in. The single compartment of mittens retains heat better than gloves that have separate compartments for each finger.

If your hands still feel cold, swing your arms around rapidly from your shoulders with your elbows straight. This motion imitates a centrifuge that will drive blood toward your fingers and open up the blood vessels in your hands.

Raynaud’s Phenomenon
Some people have a condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon. Their hands turn white and hurt when they are exposed to temperatures below 60 degrees. They often hurt also when they put their hands in cold running water. The skin on their hands hurts and turns white because they do not have the “hunting response”. The blood vessels to their hands do not open as soon as their skin temperature in their hands drops to 59 degrees F and their hand temperature drops rapidly toward freezing.

If you suffer Raynaud’s phenomenon, try this treatment: researchers at the Army's Research Institute of Environmental Medicine had sufferers sit out in the cold with their hands immersed in warm water six times a day. This caused blood vessels in their hands to open while those elsewhere in the skin closed down. All people who were tested were able to be out in the cold without feeling pain in their hands after eight sessions done every other day.

Checked 1/22/16

December 21st, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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