Is it safe to exercise when there’s an extreme cold warning?

Global Edmonton Health Matters: Jan. 9
Cold weather can be hard on lungs and not just for people with existing breathing conditions. Su-Ling Goh shares an Edmonton researcher's warning.

For those who like to take their exercise outside, the extreme cold that the entire province of Alberta is currently experiencing can lead to a simple question: is it safe for me to be exercising outside?

According to Dr. Michael Kennedy, an associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology, sport and recreation at the University of Alberta, it mainly comes down to what kind of exercise you’re doing.

“It’s the sports like cross-country skiing or running outside or speedskating, which are the ones that are more serious or could potentially injure your lung,” Kennedy said.

“Sports like downhill skiing or even taking your dog for a walk — those aren’t going to be as harmful or potentially serious or have the same serious side effects as… what we call high ventilation sports.”

Kennedy said where the danger comes from is the minute ventilation or how much airflow you have in and out of your lungs — and the fact that air this cold essentially holds no water — so a person is at risk of drying their lungs out.

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“[Exercising in the extreme cold] over and over again can lead to some of these longer-term changes in lung health, including you being what we call more hyper-responsive,” he said.

“Then when the allergy season happens in the spring, you actually become more sensitive to those sorts of allergens because of the fact that you’ve been exercising in the cold all winter on a very cold day.”

READ MORE: Extreme cold hazards: what wind chill is and how cold can lead to frostbite, hypothermia

During exercise, the average person breathes at about five times the resting breathing rate, according to Kennedy. When the temperature is as cold as it has been in Alberta, breathing that quickly can damage a person’s airway or lungs.

“When we go out in the cold on a day like today, we cover up all parts of our skin, our forehead or head or hands or feet or legs, et cetera,” Kennedy said.

“But we don’t necessarily think about covering our lungs because our lungs, although they’re inside our body, are exposed to the same air that your hand would be if you were out exercising without a glove on.”

Fit Tips with Chris Tse: How to safely exercise outside in the winter
Fit Tips with Chris Tse: How to safely exercise outside in the winter

Those looking to continue their high ventilation sports outside in this weather can, Kennedy said, but just like gloves for your hands, some precautions need to be taken to protect your lungs.

A heat and water exchanger mask can improve the temperature of the air a person is breathing by as much as 30 degrees. Kennedy recommends, at the very least, something like a buff or a scarf to reduce the airflow and potentially warm the air coming into your mouth.

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READ MORE: How rare is Edmonton’s extreme cold snap? Debunking weather myths

He also said those who may enjoy a more vigorous run when exercising should slow things down until the temperature increases.

But his number one piece of advice is to take the exercise inside until conditions improve to prevent long-term damage to your lungs and airway.