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Why Does the Cold Affect Heart Rate?

author image Fiona Bayly
Based in New York City, Fiona Bayly writes about running with a focus on health, nutrition and training strategies for athletes from beginner to professional. She is an avid triathlete, former New England Scholastic Cross Country champion and current member of TeamUSA's age-group championship team in the sport of Aquathlon.
Why Does the Cold Affect Heart Rate?
Cold temperatures demand that your heart rate increases.

Temperatures below 40 degrees hasten the loss of body heat. Shivering is a well-known response, but a less obvious reaction is heart rate increase. In cold weather, a faster heartbeat benefits muscular and respiratory function but in an unfit individual can also increase the risk of heart failure, according to Peak Performance. Winterizing your heart is essential to cold weather health, and exercise plays an important role.

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Lower Temperatures Stress Physiology

Hot chocolate provides several extra calories for body-heat production.
Hot chocolate provides several extra calories for body-heat production.

Peak Performance Online explains that cold weather raises your resting metabolic rate. You lose body heat to cold air, so your heart rate has to rise, not only keep your core temperature at 98.6 degrees but also to guarantee blood flow to your brain, muscles and internal organs. To do this, states, your cardiovascular system reduces blood flow to your skin surface and extremities by means of blood vessel constriction. Your caloric needs rise, your body taps into its glucose stores at five times the rate it does during warm weather and your body also burns more fat for internal heat. These adaptations, plus shivering--which increases muscle warmth--require increased heart rate.

Keep Exercising for Heart Health

Ice hockey, like running, is perfect for cold weather.
Ice hockey, like running, is perfect for cold weather.

Even in cold weather, keep exercising to strengthen your entire cardiovascular system. Running is well-suited to the cold because it generates significant body heat, countering the initial discomfort of lower air temperatures; in turn, the cold air prevents overheating. Sweating does not cease, according to Peak Performance, but you tend to sweat less, conserving vital fluids and electrolytes.

The Dangers of Asking Too Much of Your Heart

Snow shovelling can be strenuous, so shovel carefully.
Snow shovelling can be strenuous, so shovel carefully.

Cold air seems to suck the heat right out of you. Rain and snow further rob you of body heat since water conducts heat away from your body approximately 25 times faster than air does, according to Peak Performance. You have to work harder running into a cold wind, so if your heart is not optimally conditioned, its failure could prove lethal. Weak hearts subjected to the rigors of sudden bouts of snow shovelling can cause heart attacks. Hypothermia can set in, states Top End Sports, when core body temperatures drop so low that brain and muscle function is impaired.

Precautions for Low Temperatures

Have fun in cold weather.
Have fun in cold weather.

Acclimatize your heart to cold weather. Follow a sensible exercise routine, and when outdoors, have fun but be ready to back off if your heart begins to race erratically. Warm up and cool down to lessen the shock to your cardiovascular system, and plan your workouts intelligently, taking into consideration wind direction and windchill effects. Dress in layers with "wicking" materials against your skin to draw away moisture, and breathable, water-resistant materials on top. Make your heart's job easier; don't get too hot or too cold while outside.

Heart-Healthy Nutrition During Cold Weather

Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, essential to heart health.
Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, essential to heart health.

The American Heart Association suggests many foods that support heart health. Among them, salmon, tunafish, walnuts and avocados contain essential fatty acids that decrease inflammation. Oats contain compounds that reduce the bad cholesterols in your bloodstream. Eggs supply vitamin E and choline. Broccoli provides magnesium, a mineral that governs heart rate, as detailed by Quality Health. With good feeding and exercise, your heart can meet the demands of cold weather.

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