Sometimes it does not matter how well you keep your bones and muscles in shape. Other factors can and will prevent you from running — on occasion. But many people wonder if the icy winter air should be considered one of those factors. An old wife’s tale says that going out in cold weather will freeze your lung tissue. Is that true? The short answer is “no” — and you shouldn’t worry about exercising in winter either.
The lungs are amazing organs. In only the space of a single breath, they take the oxygen you inhale, heat it up to your body’s normal temperature, humidify it to about 100 percent, and then release the same breath as carbon dioxide. It’s a complicated process but it happens almost instantly. All of that needs to be done without any damage to your cells — even in winter months when the temperatures fall very low.
And for the most part, that’s exactly what they do. There’s no need to spend time thinking about the pain in your lungs. Your cells and lung tissues will be just fine. William O. Roberts, MD, wrote: “Many people worry that the lung tissue will freeze in cold air, but the extensive network of blood flow through the lung tissue seems to prevent that from happening.”
Basically, the more blood in the cell, the more protected. That’s similar to why we don’t suffer from heart cancer: There’s simply too much oxygenation of the cells in the heart to succumb to the deadly disease. Cancer cells in the area are destroyed almost immediately. Cold temperatures can’t destroy blood-filled cells as easily, either.
The human lungs have adapted to cold weather over time.
Roberts said, “The burning sensation you feel when breathing in cold air is probably due to the combination of heat and water exchange that is occurring early in the inspiration of cold, dry air. For most people, this sensation goes away after a few breaths. It is not known to cause harm in a healthy lung, but can trigger an attack of bronchospasm in someone with asthma.”
And that means those of you who have lung ailments or conditions like asthma still need to be careful about cold-weather exercise regimens. There are plenty of alternatives: treadmill jogging, swimming using an indoor pool, weight lifting, etc.
For those of you who would like to get out in the winter weather for a long run but want to avoid the pain of cold air, try wrapping your face with a balaclava. This will warm up the air. Your lungs will do the rest!