Acclimating to Cold Weather

I’ve always felt that acclimating to cold weather (or to hot weather) is mostly a mental thing. But, there is a strong physiological component, and there are things we can do to help our bodies tolerate a wider range of temperatures.

A few days ago, the extreme cold that’s been hitting a large part of the country came to Florida in milder form. There have been a couple of cloudy days with highs just in the low 60s, which is chilly for here.

If I thought the arrival of cool weather here would bring out all the people who had been shutting themselves indoors all summer against the heat, I was mistaken. This past Saturday, on a tour of a few small city parks with one of the civic boards I’m involved in, we didn’t see a single person actually out using a park. (Granted, it was still early in the morning.)

There were eight of us in a city van. We stopped at each park and looked at it from behind the van windows, only getting out at one park. It was a good chance to get a look at some of the lesser-known outdoor assets of our city.

For me, the reason for not getting out of the van at each stop was expediency (it’s not all that easy for eight people to get in and out of a van, and really the purpose of the trip was just to get an overview). But for the others, the main factor for staying inside the van seemed to be the cool temperatures (it was in the low 50s).

(Side note: I seem to find it bothersome and a bit laborious to get in and out of cars. It feels like descending into a small pit and then having to muscle myself back out. And I am a relatively fit person. I wonder if this is a common malady of people who mostly get around by foot and bicycle, or if it is just my own unique malady. For the record, I don’t at all have the same problem getting on and off public buses or trains.)

For the park tour, we met up at City Hall at 8:30. I walked from my house; it’s about a 30-minute walk that includes a high bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. (Our high bridges are the closest thing we have to hills in this part of the state, and a lot of people use them for exercise.) Since I had warmed up from the walk, my windbreaker jacket was tied around my waist. One of my fellow citizens was already standing out front of City Hall when I arrived. She seemed surprised that I was warm enough without a jacket, but of course I had just walked briskly for 30 minutes. Once I’d been standing still for 10 minutes I was ready to put the jacket back on.

Cold weather is not my favorite, but I have become more able to tolerate it over the past few years. At some point, I think it was back in 2007, I quit using heaters in my house. I lived in Austin at the time, in a 19-foot travel trailer in an RV park (a magnificent RV park, cocooned in ancient oaks and bursting with creative energy — but that is a subject for another post). The winters there are generally a bit colder than here, with more nights below freezing, and more hard freezes. Yet it wasn’t all that hard to do without heat once I set my mind to it. (However, although doing without heat has vastly increased my cold-tolerance, this post is not about doing without heat per se. You can use heat in your home and still significantly boost your cold-tolerance.)

Most of the friends I met up with on Saturday said they had already turned their heat on. As for me, I had just closed my windows — for the first time since April (other than hurricane boarding-up times). A lot of people I know rarely or never open their windows; they just go straight from air-conditioning to heat.

None of this is to brag about how fabulously heat- and cold-tolerant I am. What it is, is to point out a vulnerability in our mainstream culture. A vulnerability at the personal and household level, that you can take steps to reduce, if you feel so moved.

People fundamentally want to feel safe and secure in the world. How secure are we, if we are so dependent on artificial climate control? Never mind eco footprint for now … This extreme dependency is not good for our bodies, our peace of mind … or our wallets! (Artificial heat and cooling are incredibly expensive and make up a big part of one’s energy bill.)

Besides making you more resilient and freeing up your wallet, exposure to cooler temperatures can also help you boost your metabolism, which is great news for people who want to lose weight and feel more energetic. (Interestingly, I’ve also read that exposure to hotter temperature extremes can give the same benefits. Widening our temperature tolerance envelope at both ends is good!)

Those of us who live in milder climates are obviously in an easier situation, in terms of reducing dependency on artificial heat and cooling. But even those of you living in more extreme climates have much potential to adapt and expand your envelope of temperature tolerance if you would like to do so. I just read a novel set in Alaska; the protagonist, a young woman whose husband had been killed by a bear, routinely tent-camped in sub-zero weather, and felt warm when it was “only” a few degrees below zero. (Due North, by Mitchell Smith. Great read!) Yes, this was a work of fiction but it was obviously based in real life.

After our parks tour, I walked to the Saturday farmer’s market to pick up groceries, and then walked back over the bridge to home. I was toasty warm at that point, but as I sat down to do some desk work, I piled on a few layers. Later in the day, feeling a bit low-energy and at loose ends, I took a walk across the river to one of my favorite parks, a little island offering a bit of unmanicured nature. Despite the chilly air, I warmed up quickly. (Walking does that.) I also felt a lot more energetic and alive. (Nature, as well as walking, does that!)

Here are some of my personal favorite tips for boosting cold-tolerance (other than the aforementioned “doing without heat”):

– Exercise outdoors rather than indoors whenever possible. And in general, make a point of spending at least 15 minutes outdoors every day, in all seasons.

– Turn your thermostat down a degree or so at a time. Find the envelope of your tolerance and push it.

– Find things you deeply enjoy that are outdoors. Places you love to visit, like a park or garden. Activities you love, like walking, running, photography, collecting rocks or shells. If you love a place or activity that gets you outdoors, you’ll be more likely to partake of it year-round.

– Make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the season! This is key. I’ve heard Norwegian friends say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing!” Multiple thin layers are better than one thick layer. They trap more air; you can peel them off or put them back on as needed; and they feel less clunky and cumbersome on your body. Hats and socks are key; we lose a lot of heat through our heads and feet.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I always thought acclimating to temperature was mainly a mental thing. But I’ve learned there is a strong physiological component as well. Here are some resources I hope you’ll find helpful.

Further Reading:

What Happens to Your Body When You Adapt to Cold (The Runner Dad) (written for runners, but useful for everyone)

How to Help Your Body Adjust to Cold Weather (Time Magazine) (mentions short cold showers as one method for acclimating very quickly, but I have my own much milder version of this that is plenty effective: simply being willing to sit and endure chilly air for a minute or a few before putting on socks or a sweater)

Cold Acclimation and Acclimatization in Humans: Science of the Cold (Cool Antarctica) (mentions the role of perception and will-power)

Lesson in commuting: Kids in Finland continue to ride bikes to school in -17C (1.4F) temperatures “It’s normal; always been like that. I cycled and kicksledded to school when I was a kid, too,” he says. “And it’s the same thing even in minus 30 C.” (A reminder that what’s considered “normal” has great power to shape our lives. Which is why I have set out to normalize low-footprint living.)