ROCHESTER — When I interviewed Dr. Michael Kennedy about cold-related lung issues that can happen during exercise, it was minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit outside his office window in Alberta, Canada. In addition to being on the faculty at the University of Alberta where he researches what happens to people when they exercise in extreme environments, he's also an accomplished cross-country skier.

This guy knows about cold.

"Cold is a stressor on the body," Kennedy says.

He explained that when it's super cold, your body has to work extra hard to keep warm and functioning properly. He's especially interested in what that stress does to an athlete's lungs when competing in frigid air. He says that just one race in extreme cold has the potential to cause long-lasting problems.

"A large number of ex-cross-country skier racers, especially females, have experienced a specific event that has changed their lung health forever," Kennedy says. "I don't want to scare people, but when it's really, really cold outside, you do have to think about your choices. And if you are going to go outside and exercise, reduce your exposure. And if it's too cold, stay inside until it warms up."

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Viv Williams
Viv Williams

What's too cold? Well, Kennedy says, there are only general guidelines since research is just emerging in some areas of cold weather exercise (he's involved in a ton of it). One of his papers, "Respiratory Function and Symptoms Post Cold Exercise in Female High and Low Ventilation Sport Athletes," concludes that exercising in temps -at minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) is likely the threshold where high ventilation exercise induces exercise induced bronchoconstriction.

This condition can cause symptoms, such as cough, mucus, wheezing, burning sensation in lungs, chest tightness, chest pain, shortness of breath, sore throat and severe cough.

Why is exercising in arctic air so hard on your breathing?

"There are three main stressors on the lungs," Kennedy says. "The most virulent is cold, dry air itself."

  • Cold air. Inhaling cold air requires your body to work harder to get temperatures up to body temp.
  • Dryness. Zero-degree air has no ability to hold water content. Your body has to do an incredible amount of work to humidify the air in order for it to get oxygen into the blood steam.
  • Sheer stress. When you exercise, your breathing rate goes up and so does the volume of air you breathe. That can create turbulent flow on the airway. Dry, fast-flowing air can damage tissue and cause inflammation.

"These three things are the perfect storm, because that's what happens when you go out and exercise in really really cold weather," Kennedy says.

What can you do to protect your lungs from cold weather-related issues when you're exercising outside? Kennedy has three tips:

  • Cover your mouth with a scarf or use a heat and moisture exchange device available commercially.
  • Slow down. If your respiration rate, you may prevent the turbulent flow of cold air into your lungs.
  • Exercise inside at home or a gym until the cold weather passes.

Kennedy says one thing we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is the importance of being able to exercise at home. He says that, rather than risking extreme cold, athletes of all levels should consider checking out a free online exercise video or hopping on a piece of equipment, such as a stationary bike, rowing machine or treadmill until the cold snap passes.

If you have symptoms after exercising in the cold or anytime, see your health care provider. Kenney says there are treatments that can help you recover.

Kennedy also notes that extremely cold air is not just a problem for athletes. Anyone of any age who is exposed to it is potentially at risk. So whether you are an elite athlete, a youth athlete, weekend warrior or you're simply heading out to shovel the walk, make an effort to keep your lungs safe from extreme cold.

Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at vwilliams@newsmd.com.