How do you stay safe and stay connected with family and friends during a COVID winter?
Cold temperatures have put a chill on safer, outside gatherings, driving more people indoors. But the icy weather comes at a treacherous time during the pandemic: Rising case counts mean there’s more virus out there, and any social or holiday gathering indoors will give the virus more opportunities to spread.
But the official arrival of winter doesn’t mean you have to be stuck inside. With a little planning, the right gear and an understanding of how the human body reacts to cold, it’s still possible to take all or at least part of your social life outdoors — and still stay warm (or at least not get too cold).
“In the right conditions, depending on what you’re wearing and what you’re doing, a person doesn’t have to be cold,” said John W. Castellani, research physiologist in the thermal and mountain medicine division at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. “People are afraid of the cold, but there’s no reason to be if they have the right clothing and the right mindset.”
But staying warm is more than just a state of mind. There are several steps you can take to help your body cope with cold conditions. The human body can adapt relatively quickly to cold temperatures. Habituation to cold is the reason the same temperature can feel really cold in the fall and blissfully warm in the late winter.
“In the fall when it starts to cool off, people think 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) feels awful,” Castellani said. “When February comes along and the temperature hits 50 degrees, oh, my God, you want to play golf. You think spring has happened. Well, there’s a lot that’s happened to a person physiologically that makes that adaptation happen between October and February.”
The good news is, your body can begin to adjust to frigid weather in a matter of days, according to a number of cold acclimation studies.
When our bodies step out into the cold, two major physiological responses keep us warm. First, blood vessels constrict to reduce blood flow to our skin and reduce heat loss in the body’s core. That’s why your distant body parts — fingers, toes, ears and nose — all get cold so quickly.
“The goal is to shunt blood back to the body’s core and protect the important organs in there to keep us going,” Castellani said. “It sacrifices those peripheral areas.”
And if you haven’t dressed for the weather or you stay outdoors too long, your body’s shivering response kicks in as a way to generate more heat.
Researchers don’t fully understand how the body habituates to cold weather. But they do know that frequently exposing your body to cold appears to blunt cold-sensitive nerve signals. It’s the reason people from cold climates can feel comfortable in winter conditions that make a Florida transplant shiver in misery.
You can condition your body to adjust to cold temperatures in as little as three to seven days. “Practice” spending time in the cold by going out for a few minutes at first, then stay for longer stretches on subsequent days. Researchers know it works because they’ve studied cold habituation in soldiers in arctic climates and deep sea divers in freezing ocean waters.
“You can’t stay housebound and expect to go outside in the cold and feel OK,” Castellani said. “Make a foray outside multiple times to start adapting to the cold.” (Another simple trick to habituate yourself to the cold more quickly is to add brief bursts of cold water at the end of your daily shower, but Castellini knows that recommending cold showers is wildly unpopular advice.)
In general, people over 60 are less tolerant of cold than younger people, but they can still adapt over time. Total heat loss tends to be greater in women than men, because they have a larger surface area of skin (relative to their overall body size) and less insulation provided by muscle. And, perhaps a silver lining to the pandemic pounds you may have gained: People with a higher percentage of body fat stay warmer in the cold than lean people.
Here’s another tip for outdoor socializing: Try to keep everybody moving. Long walks, hiking, outdoor ice skating, cross-country skiing or any activity will give your body’s warming system a boost. During a sedentary outdoor visit, most people would get cold after 30 to 45 minutes, but add activity and you can last a few hours in cold weather.
Clothing matters a lot, Castellani said. Plan for three layers. The base layer should be made of a lightweight moisture-wicking fabric. (Moisture, even from sweat, will make you feel cold.) Athletic apparel often is made with synthetic wicking fabrics, including polyester, nylon or polypropylene. Natural wicking fibers include silk or merino wool, a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts because it’s softer than regular wool. Don’t use cotton as your base layer in winter weather — it retains moisture. Add a second layer of fleece, merino wool or regular wool for insulation. Your outer layer, usually a winter coat, should repel wind and rain.
Don’t forget a hat. If you wrap your body in warm clothes but forget the hat, as much as 10% of your body heat can escape through your head.
Hands and feet also need special attention. Two sock layers can help, but loosen your shoes or buy winter boots a little larger so they don’t fit too tightly and restrict blood flow. For hands, mittens are better than gloves, because they trap more heat. And while many people use hand warmers to keep fingers cozy, studies show that keeping forearms warm (to increase blood flow to the hands) is the better way to keep hands from getting too cold.
Don’t blow warm breath into your mittens or gloves; the vapor from your breath adds moisture and will end up making your hands colder.
Adding heaters to an outdoor patio or hosting a few friends in a well-ventilated garage can also take the chill off outdoor socializing. If you gather in a garage, wear masks, keep the time you spend together short, and leave the big garage door, as well as any additional windows, open to increase ventilation. “If you open the whole garage door, that sounds less risky, but it’s not no risk,” said Dr. Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s semi-enclosed, so the more ventilation the better.”
This fall, Sally Jacobs, 63, of Boston added heat lamps to her patio and hired an electrician to improve the wiring in her garage to accommodate several space heaters. When her adult children or close friends come over, everyone wears masks, and they leave the garage door and garage windows open.
For New Year’s Eve, she’s planning to ring in 2021 with a few friends outdoors on her patio. Jacobs plans to limit the celebration to about an hour — long enough for everyone to raise a glass, make a toast and say goodbye to an awful year. Jacobs said she knew that preparing the patio and garage for winter socializing was “the only way I’d get through the season.”
“I’m a high-risk person and have to be really careful about what I do,” Jacobs said. “But I like to see people, and I like to be connected.”
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