There are many ways to view the very cold and snowy winter we have been having.
You can be as gloomy as Shakespeare (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), as cheerful as Robert Frost (“You can’t get too much winter in the winter”), or as philosophical as Hal Borland (“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn”).
Your perspective matters. It seems to be directly correlated to how well you will thrive and perform in hot or cold weather. In one behavioral study, soldiers were asked their preference for heat or cold. Their answer, it was found, effectively determined their comfort and subsequent success in a given climate — useful information for their commander to know.
Useful information for the rest of us to know is that your mind and attitude can help you in dealing with the cold weather. Psychological tricks to manage the cold temperatures include keeping a busy and active brain. By concentrating on a task or simply meditating, the physical discomfort and biological effects of the cold, such as shivering, can be reduced and even stopped. It is always interesting to note that mechanics or public safety workers in extremely cold climes easily manage sub-zero weather, the same weather that would chill you or me right to the bone.
There are physical strategies for those who can’t use mind tricks to keep the cold at bay. Our bodies have their own way of managing the cool climate.
Eating more, especially high-calorie and high-fat foods, has been shown to work well for some cultures living in consistently cold places. A one-centimeter layer of subcutaneous fat has the same insulating factor as a .64 cm thick layer of wool or cotton clothing. People from cultures who live in frigid regions also develop additional layers of fat around their core internal organs.
Shivering is another metabolic method of keeping yourself warm. Shivering, and other muscle exercises, can increase your heat output tenfold and fivefold, respectively.
Your body can also fight the cold through a circulatory response. An average person has approximately 62,000 miles of blood vessels — enough, if stretched out, to circle the globe two-and-a-half times. These vessels are found throughout the body, but there are some that are just below the surface of your skin and some that are deeper. By constricting the vessels closer to the skin’s surface and forcing the blood into deeper vessels, your body conserves heat, and heat loss through your skin is reduced. You may have heard the common saying that more heat is lost from your head than from anywhere else, to which at least one physiologist has replied that “more heat is lost through whatever isn’t covered up than from anywhere else.” Thus, while putting on a hat will certainly help, remember that, as a result, the majority of your heat loss will shift to whatever other part of you that is exposed. Be sure to worry about more than just the top of your head and keep it all covered. Body size and shape also matter. According to Bergman’s Rule, the more mass one has, the more likely it is that one will survive in cold climates. This is explained by the fact that more mass and more cells produce more heat. In higher temperatures, lower body mass seems to be the rule. Think of the Masai people in Africa versus the Inuit of the Arctic region. But it is not only size; shape also has an effect. Mammals of the same general size and mass differ greatly in their ability to manage temperatures. Long and lean body shapes lose heat readily, and those body types do better in warm climates. Compact, rounder animals can hold heat and handle cold climates better. While there is no time between now and spring to have an evolutionary strategy solve our susceptibility to cold, the best advice to give this season is to bundle up, hunker down, grab a cup of cocoa, or use mind over matter — whatever it takes to stay warm!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.