Winterize Yourself
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | December 11, 2007

In the past, I’ve written Newsletters about health habits that are important (1) and doing maintenance on your body just like you would on your car (2). This year, I decided to do a Newsletter about what you should and shouldn’t do during the winter. So grab a cup of low-fat cocoa, get cozy, and find out some do’s and don’ts for the winter season.

Shoveling Snow
In a word, breathe! It may have already happened in your area of the country after the first major snow fall: the number of heart attacks seems to go up when people start shoveling snow. While we don’t know whether they really go up during snow shoveling or whether the local news just needs to fill airtime, there’s no question that something called the Valsalva is dangerous.

The Valsalva is an increase in intrathoracic pressure (the chest cavity) when people hold their breath while exerting themselves; the same thing can happen when people hold their breath while forcing a bowel movement (so eat more fiber!) The pressure puts a strain on the heart and if coronary artery disease is already present, it puts your heart at risk.

Here’s the most graphic example I can give to explain what’s going on. Make a fist with your left hand. Put your right hand over the left and grip it as hard as you can. Now, try to open your left hand. Can’t do it, can you? That represents the force your heart has to beat against due to the increased pressure in your chest.

The solution is very simple. Exhale when you lift the shovel and throw the snow, inhale when you scoop again. And if you ever feel any chest pain or discomfort--any at all--call 911 or the EMTs immediately. The snow will melt but if you ignore symptoms of heart disease, you may not be around to see it.

Cell Phones
That raises another point. You should always carry your cell phone with you in the winter. Besides the possibility of a heart attack, the cold air can initiate an asthma attack in those who are susceptible. You can fall on the ice and break a limb when you’re out for a walk or even taking out the garbage, and lying there until someone notices you isn’t a good option. Your car may slide off the road and into a ditch. Of all the times of the year when you really need to keep your fully charged cell phone with you, winter is at the top. I take mine with me on every run, but especially now in the winter.

Cover Up
It goes without question that you should cover all your skin when the temperature gets cold. The colder it gets, the faster you can get frostbite. Apply clothes in layers to trap warm air and use a windproof jacket as the outer layer. Don’t forget the ears and nose either.

But when it’s cold, it’s easy to forget that sunshine can still damage your eyes and your skin. I found this out the hard way when I went for a run on a day that was dry, windless, and a sunny 40 degrees; I took off my hat and coat during the run and after an hour ended up with a nice sunburn. Protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses and protect skin exposed to the sun by wearing sunblock all year long.

Drink Up
In the winter, humidity levels go down and as a result, we exhale more moisture when we breathe. It’s easier to become dehydrated because we’re probably not paying attention. Make sure you drink one-half your body weight in ounces of fluids every day. It doesn’t have to be just water, but an extra glass or two might help keep your skin from drying out or getting cracks on your fingers this winter. Don’t forget to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, whether from fish-oil supplements or actual fish. Moisture and oil are necessary to maintain good skin health.

SAD
Michigan is one of those states that have a lot of overcast days all year long but especially in the winter. Some people are susceptible to a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The lack of sunshine can wreak havoc on your mood. Pay attention to your mood and how you feel. If you’re not sure, ask your spouse or friends--people won’t always tell you about it without being prompted. SAD is very treatable with special lamps, supplements, or mild anti-depressants. You can try tough it out on your own and be miserable, or you can work with your healthcare provider so you can feel as good as you can every day of the year. Life is just too short to waste a single day being depressed.

Bottom Line
Winter is a great season of the year with the holidays and the anticipation of a new year. Spend some time winterizing yourself to make this your best winter ever.

References
  1. Twelve Health Habits (December 27, 2005 Newsletter)
  2. Spring Maintenance (May 10, 2006 Newsletter)
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