4 Ways Cold Weather Can Affect Our Bodies

And 35 winter activity ideas.

We Wisconsinites are no strangers to cold weather, and we know it’s more than just a season. Winter, fall, and even spring can sometimes come with a chill in the air, which means extra layers of clothing, hot comfort food, and, surprisingly, even some curious effects on our health and wellbeing. 

While cold temperatures can unfortunately bring a few more nuisances than balmy ones, there’s nothing a little knowledge and ambition can’t combat. Here are four pesky ways cold weather can affect our bodies, and some ideas on how to fight back:

  1. Breathing difficulties – Cold air can cause your airways to spasm, constricting and causing shortness of breath. This can be particularly more noticeable for those with existing respiratory conditions like COPD or asthma. If you notice that cold air negatively affects your breathing, try a face mask or pull up your scarf when you head outside. The heat from your breath warms the air before it is inhaled into your lungs, making your respiratory tract happier.
  2. Headaches – “Cold weather can cause blood vessels to quickly narrow, reducing the flow of blood, which is one of the causes of headaches,” says Xiang Li, M.D., internist at Tri-City Medical Center in California. Additionally, severe cold, a bright glare off the snow, or stormy weather can trigger a migraine for some people. If you’re prone to headaches, Mayo Clinic recommends keeping tabs on all aspects of your day when head pain strikes. Keeping a headache diary may help identify known triggers so you can avoid them in the future.
  3. Altered mood – Many believe that the lack of exposure to sunlight during colder months can affect mood and increase the likelihood of developing seasonal affective disorder, as well as inhibit our body’s intake of vitamin D3. A deficiency of this important vitamin can cause sleepiness, sensitivity to pain, and muscle weakness. For individuals with dementia, the low light conditions of colder months can exacerbate symptoms of Sundowners Syndrome, because their body’s circadian rhythm is disrupted. If the chill in the air makes you feel a bit “blah,” consider relocating your easy chair next to a sunny window or try a lightbox to increase the happy hormones in your body. Talk with your medical professional about upping your levels of vitamin D3 to the recommended 600 IU per day. Altering your diet to incorporate more fatty fish like salmon or tuna, fortified milk or orange juice, or a supplement may help.
  4. Aching joints – Science can’t conclusively say exactly why cold or damp weather causes joint pain. Some believe the cold lowers air pressure around joints, which makes surrounding soft tissues expand like a balloon. It could also be that chilliness causes muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues to contract, tugging on sensitive nerves. No matter what causes the pain, moving your body in light exercise keeps it at bay by warming and loosening joints, and also encourages a healthy weight which further minimizes stress on joints. 

These ailments, in addition to the more obvious risk of developing hypothermia, provide more than enough reasons to minimize our time outdoors and keep our bodies moving. Need some inspiration for filling your frosty days with meaningful activities?

Here are 35 ideas to get you started:

  1. Bake cookies and share with a neighbor
  2. Learn to crochet or knit – find a skilled friend, take a class, or learn on YouTube
  3. Decorate your front window with a seasonal scene display
  4. Do a jigsaw puzzle
  5. Hop on some indoor exercise equipment, like a treadmill
  6. Arrange flowers
  7. Make a craft to give or keep
  8. Go to the movies
  9. Plant a seed, bulb, or small plant
  10. Try a video chat with family or friends
  11. Join or start a book club
  12. Put together a gift basket or “Blessing Bag” for someone in need
  13. Contact a charity close to your heart and see how you can help
  14. Attend a craft fair, or sell at one
  15. Go bowling
  16. Pop in an exercise DVD, turn on your Nintendo Wii, or find a tutorial on YouTube
  17. Look into your family genealogy
  18. Contact a local school about volunteering to read with kids
  19. Join or start a game of bingo – online is great if you’re having a solo day
  20. Go swimming at a local senior center or gym
  21. Turn on a new kind of music
  22. Make a wreath or swag for your front door
  23. Plan your outfits for the week, wearing a different color each day
  24. Visit an indoor conservatory to get your fill of nature – Milwaukee Domes, anyone?
  25. Window shop as you walk around the mall
  26. Bake a sweet treat – an old classic or something new and exotic
  27. Download a new iPad app
  28. Climb your stairs
  29. Research upcoming concerts, ballets, or theater performances near you
  30. Enroll in a class through a community education program
  31. Invite a friend for a cup of tea
  32. Pull out old photo albums and enjoy memories
  33. Start a recipe exchange club with friends to meet and exchange new ideas
  34. Paint a masterpiece (on a paper, canvas, window, or wood)
  35. Make a handmade greeting card