Winter Outdoor Activities with Asthma
I’ve written before about “subzero breathing” and how cold air affects my asthma. Exercise is another asthma trigger for me, and dealing with these two things in tandem (hello, outdoor Winter fun!) can be a challenge. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done—after all, a lot of Winter Olympians have asthma, and compete at the top of their sports, and bring home the medals!
For various reasons, I’d avoid exercising outside on very cold days. Outside of asthma, it might be harder to avoid frostbite, keep warm enough, and generally might be uncomfortable and less-than-fun when temperatures are just too cold, or you’re not dressed appropriately. However, if the temperature isn’t too too far down on the thermometer, here’s how to prepare for winter activity, keeping your asthma under consideration:
1. Wear a scarf or face mask.
I’ve covered this one in my Subzero Breathing post, but there are tons of options out there from a simple bandanna or scarf you’ve got at home or a more costly face-mask. Keep in mind that if you wear glasses, it might be worthwhile to invest in some of that stuff that prevents your glasses from fogging up, although I don’t know how great that works in this scenario (see also: I haven’t used it since I was a kid.) There are reasons that you usually can’t see snowboarders faces: it’s more comfortable for everybody not to breathe freezing cold air. Plus, it keeps your face warm which is a win.
Just like for exercise of any sort, pre-medicating for outdoor activity if you’re sensitive to cold air is even more important. You may also find you need to use your inhaler a bit more than usual, so talk to your doctor about planning your winter exercise pursuits and developing a plan for your asthma management.
3. Keep your inhaler warm-ish.
If you’ve got an inner pocket in your jacket, this is a good place to keep your inhaler—close to your body and where it is the warmest, near your abdomen. If you carry epinephrine for severe allergies, this is also a good idea. Don’t leave any sort of medication in your car—that goes for the cold of winter and the heat of summer (and, let’s just say everywhere in between for good measure!)
You may not feel like you need to quench your thirst with winter activity like you do in summer, but that doesn’t mean that your body isn’t losing just as much fluid as it might in other seasons. Layers of clothing mean you’re possibly sweating without realizing it due to the insulation of thicker clothing. The National Academy of Sports Medicine also explains that, unlike in the heat, our perception of thirst is decreased1, so we may not realize when we need to drink.
To complicate things further (thanks, body!), our body moves as much fluid (blood) as possible from our arms and legs to our core in response to cold temperatures, and keeps it there by constricting our blood vessels in our fingers, hands, toes and feet especially, because fluid freezes, even if it is inside our body (thanks, Penn State science students for the lesson!). Fluid is not only better insulated at our core, it more necessary to survival here to keep our vital organs functioning and warm—this is why our hands and feet tend to get cold first!1,2 In the cold, once our vital organs are guarded, our body wants to conserve warmth and get rid of excess fluid by decreasing blood plasma (the fluid, non-blood-cell portion of blood) and volume, essentially “thickening” blood (therefore increasing blood pressure as it is harder to pump around the body).2,3 Now with more fluid than is needed on board, the body is simply about getting back into balance4. The desire to offload these fluids to maintain warmth messes with our body’s other great mechanism for helping us assess hydration status—the color and volume of our urine. Naaah, sorry, not a useful indicator when our body is preoccupied with staying warm! Regardless of hydration, we actually pee more when it’s cold out as our kidneys work to lower our blood pressure by peeing out the extra fluid—it’s a thing, called cold diuresis.2,4 On the bright side, I guess it builds in some potential breaks in warm indoor bathrooms?
The reason that hydration is so important when you have asthma? Dry airways are more “twitchy” or sensitive—and because cold, dry air is irritating to our lungs, when we’re exercising and breathing rapidly, we’re losing even more of the moisture in our lungs (exhaled) to the environment.1 Yeah, I get that it sounds like nonsense to deal with for a winter activity—put up with drinking when you’re not thirsty, peeing frequently when you can’t even tell if you’re hydrated plus winter gear makes the bathroom thing even more annoying, and consider that yeah you’re probably sweating somewhere three layers of clothes down—the bottom line is that especially in the winter, make hydration a priority and your lungs will thank you for it.
5. The warm-up still applies. Actually, It’s even more important.
Start off your activity even more slowly and gradually than normal when exercising in colder conditions to allow your body to adjust to the activity and the air temperature. Read more about warming up for exercise here. The same (in reverse) goes for your cool down.
What kind of winter activities are you taking part in this year? Does cold air trigger your asthma? Let us know in the comments!
Do you experience allergies and/or sensitivities?