When a minus-20 degree wind comes howling down on a chairlift, it can be enough to shake the faith of even the most devout ski enthusiasts. We all know the feeling, yet we tend to experience it in different ways. As warm-blooded animals, our body temperatures are relatively high, constant and independent of our surroundings. So why are some skiers destined to shiver in liftlines while others are busy shedding layers?
We all have a mechanism called a "hunting response," meaning our bodies are constantly looking to maintain the right temperature. "The brain acts as a thermostat," says Dr. E. Wayne Askew, director of the Division of Foods and Nutrition at the University of Utah. "When it senses a drop in temperature, it reroutes heat to the vital organs in the body's core." That means there's less heat for the extremities, making for numb toes and frozen fingers. The process works differently in all of us. "Some skiers' blood vessels don't constrict as readily," explains Askew. "Those people feel warmer on the slopes."
Differences in resting blood pressure and metabolic rates can also affect the way we perceive cold. People with high blood pressure stay warmer because their blood is pushed around the body more vigorously (but that doesn't mean you should make a habit of eating high-salt chili at lunch). Your resting metabolic rate determines how hard your body continues to work while you're at rest. A high metabolic rate means your body can keep you warm even while you've stopped to enjoy a mountain view.
Of course, much of the heat you pump to your extremities will escape from the surface of your skin, so the more surface area you have in relation to your body mass, the more heat you'll lose. Conversely, people with less surface area in relation to body weight will generate more heat.
The body's iron content also has been linked to warmth. Individuals with low iron levels tend to have slower metabolic rates. Iron supplements may help, but shouldn't be taken without consulting a doctor, as excess iron can be harmful.
Still cold? When the guy next to you on the lift pulls a flask from his parka and sends it your way, you have some things to consider. Alcohol is a depressant and will work to relax those constricted blood vessels, releasing warmth to the extremities. You'll feel more comfortable for a little while, but you need to be very careful. In extreme winter temperatures, heat released to the extremities will sacrifice your overall body warmth. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means that it will dehydrate your body and slow down your metabolic rate.
Hydration is critical in the cold, and drinking warm liquids also helps relax constricted blood vessels. Older skiers in particular need to beware of dehydration. If you feel as if you're getting colder with every passing ski season, it may be that your thirst response isn't what it once was. Circulation slows down with age-keeping yourself well hydrated can increase metabolism. If you're looking to conquer the cold through diet, carbo-loading before you hit the slopes will help your body produce heat during the last couple of runs of the day. Some doctors also recommend that you eat fatty foods, such as cheese or peanut butter, before hitting the slopes; the excess energy needed to burn these foods can help keep you warmer.
Regardless of the weather or your physical makeup, feeling cold is also psychological. According to David Roth, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the biggest difference between us when it comes to the cold is the point at which we begin to complain. "People have different comfort zones," says Roth. "If you were to ask a gold medalist what the temperature was like on the day she won, she probably wouldn't be able to tell you. If she was focused on being cold, she probably wouldn't have won."
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Are Women Colder Than Men?
Women may notice they need more lodge breaks between runs than their male counterparts. According to Dr. E. Wayne Askew, women tend to have a higher surface-area-to-mass ratio than men, which means they have more exposure to the environment, and more area from which internal heat can be lost. In addition, their resting blood pressure tends to be lower than men's, resulting in poorer circulation. They also tend to have lower iron levels than men, further inhibiting their heat production. Finally, some women experience a virtually unexplained condition known as Reynauld's Syndrome, which results in colder extremities. n But these physical distinctions may not add up to much. In her experience, Patty Burnett, ski patrol supervisor at Copper Mountain Resort, Colo., hasn't noticed any difference between men and women skiers when it comes to the cold. "Women may just be more fashion oriented," she says. "They don't want to wear all those bulky clothes or cover their heads, but when they're well prepared for the elements, women hold up to the cold as well as men."