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30 minutes of intense exercise in the cold can cause lung strain and wheezing, according to an expert

INSIDER logo INSIDER 24/11/2021 glandsverk@businessinsider.com (Gabby Landsverk)
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  • Strenuous exercise in freezing temperatures can strain your lungs, research suggests. 
  • Breathing lots of cold, dry air can cause temporary coughing, sore throat, and runny nose.
  • Ease up on intensity, wear a mask, and avoid coming inside too quickly, an expert recommends. 

Colder weather is perfect for winter sports like skiing, snowshoeing, or even snowy runs. But when temperatures drop below 30 degrees, it may be time to scale back the intensity, according to Michael Kennedy, professor of kinesiology, sport, and recreation at the University of Alberta. 

Breathing hard in cold, dry air can stress your lungs, causing symptoms like coughing and sore throat, Kennedy's research suggests. 

"The lung is really a unique organ in the body because it's open to the air. There's nothing preventing the environment from getting in there," he told Insider. 

To avoid uncomfortable (albeit temporary) respiratory issues, avoid intense exercise in the cold, wear a mask, and allow your lungs to adjust before coming back inside, he said. 

Symptoms from cold weather exercise include coughing, wheezing

When lungs are exposed to cold, it's normal to experience coughing before and after exercising, wheezing (a feeling of constriction in the lungs), sore throat, runny nose, and a phlegmy cough.

Symptoms can occur in healthy people during vigorous outdoor exercise that are similar to ones you may experience with a cold or respiratory infection. 

You can distinguish exercise-induced symptoms from more serious illness by watching out for signs like fever, body aches, and a general feeling of fatigue and discomfort, Kennedy said.

Workout-related coughing and wheezing will generally dissipate over 24 hours, Kennedy said, but can be induced after just a short bout of outdoor exertion, if it's cold enough.

"Even 30 minutes is quite a challenging stressful event for your lungs. If you're going to chose to go out, you have to reduce the intensity so you'll stress your lungs significantly less," he said. 

Don't rush back into warmth — it can worsen the damage

While it can be tempting to go inside immediately after a chilly workout, Kennedy said warm air can worsen lung symptoms. As air temperature increases, it takes more water content to humidify. As a result, the warm air hitting your already-parched lungs and airway can make them even drier, especially if you're still breathing heavily.

"If you take a really stressed-out lung that's dehydrated and bring it into warm air, you're basically multiplying the effect of what happened in the cold air," Kennedy said. 

A better option is to allow your breathing to return to a normal, resting rate so your lungs can recover a bit before reintroducing warmer temperatures.  

Wearing a scarf or mask can help protect the lungs from cold, dry air

To avoid cold damage to the lungs, stay indoors or exercise less intensely when the temperatures drop, particularly at 5 degrees and below. 

A face covering can also help mitigate some of the damage, Kennedy said. 

While surgical-style masks can be helpful to prevent viral particles, they aren't useful for protecting against dry air because they tend to become too damp, too quickly when you're breathing heavily. 

In contrast, a scarf, neck gaiter, or mask of thicker, performance fabric can help create a pocket of warm, moist air in front of your mouth.

"Wearing a mask likely pays dividends for alleviating some of the symptoms," Kennedy said. 

In some places, it can be worth taking precautions like masking up or exercising less intensely even before winter chill sets in. 

Dry air can be a source of irritation for the lung at milder temperatures in high elevation mountain regions or very dry climates, according to Kennedy. 

"Even in the fall temperatures, dryness can be an issue," he said. "If you're putting on more hand lotion or chapstick, that dryness can be affecting the lungs, too."

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