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 Dr. Frank Lipman sits on a chair, cross-legged, arm resting on the back of the chair, lightly touching his other hand that is resting on his thigh. He is wearing blue denim, a blue dress shirt and a navy textured blazer and black glasses. He is smiling, showing his front teeth looking off to the side.

Dr. Frank Lipman

Chief Medical Officer at THE WELL

Updated: 04/04/2024

Okay, it’s February. We’re deep in winter’s grip and the warm days of spring are a long way off. So, the question is, are you crushing winter or is it crushing you? I hope you’re finding ways to thrive, despite the low temperatures and limited sunlight. And, if perchance you’re not quite crushing it, that’s understandable. As a product of the subtropics myself, I feel your winter pain. Truth be told, sometimes even I can feel less than inspired to step outside when temps tank. But then I get to thinking about all the good stuff that comes along with cold exposure and immediately I’m re-inspired to step outside and absorb a world of health benefits.

Now you might be saying, what possible good can come from hanging out in the cold? Won’t I just get sick? Why exactly should I crawl out from under my cozy duvet? Well, I can give you at least five eye-opening reasons to stop hibernating, get moving and get out there this winter. More than just a change of scenery, cold exposure can help slow your aging roll and extend your ‘healthspan’ (aka, the life in your years), so take advantage now — before it warms up! Think of winter’s chill as your youth-preserving secret weapon — and here’s how and why I encourage you to harness that chilling power all season long:

Cold temps are a chilly fountain of cellular youth.

Brief exposure to colder temperatures is technically known as ‘cold thermogenesis.’ The idea here is to keep exposure modest for best effects, not to give yourself frostbite or hypothermia — more is not better. Brief bouts of cold exposure have been shown to enhance the repair capabilities of cells, stimulating the body’s continuous self-cleaning system. Known as ‘autophagy,’ it’s your cells’ recycling system that gets rid of old and damaged cells, then strips them for (good) parts to make new robust cells. This constant cellular turnover helps protect your body from disease (and bad-cells-gone-haywire). Brief exposure to cold temperatures helps turbocharge autophagy, slowing aging to boot, so get out there to help hang onto that youthful glow!

Cold exposure flips your longevity switch.

Braving the elements — whether for a hard-core workout or a relaxing stroll — can activate your longevity gene pathways, increasing mitochondria production, and tamping down inflammation. Surprisingly, even small amounts of exposure to adversity — in this case, cold temps — can trigger the body’s defenses against aging without causing harm. This phenomenon, known as ‘hormesis,’ has been found to have anti-aging effects and has shown promise as a preventative treatment for dementia, by taming the inflammation and oxidative stress that can drive that much-feared neurological condition. To use the cold to stoke your anti-aging furnace, try adding these simple temperature adjustments to your wintertime routines:

  • Go outdoors, however briefly, a few times a day, but don’t ‘bundle up’ — leave the overcoat behind and instead, slightly under-dress for the weather, in a few light layers, creating a bit of physical ‘adversity’ that encourages hormesis. If you’re starting the day off slow, try taking a few meditative moments to enjoy your morning coffee outside.
  • Give cold water swimming a try or sign up for an ice bath or cryotherapy sessions — starting slow and building up your tolerance over time.
  • If it’s looking like more of an indoors kind of day, then finish your morning shower with a 30-60 second cold water rinse, and if you’re game, try working your way up to all-cold showers, over time.

Cold exposure helps stave off the winter blues.

It’s no secret that no matter the season, physical exercise does great things for every system in your body. It’s also a natural mood elevator that pumps up the release of your brain’s precious ‘feel good’ endorphins. Studies indicate that an hour of outdoor exercise offers the same mood lift as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors, so make use of the outdoors for a happier head. Cold exposure can also boost mood by helping to reduce inflammation throughout the body. And, with studies showing a correlation between higher levels of inflammation and depression, the less inflammation the body has to deal with, the better your mood will likely be, so get out there! What’s more, cold exposure also facilitates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, another happiness hormone that results in a pleasurable lift. Plus, all that outdoor exercise and fresh air helps boost oxygen levels in the brain, which in turn boosts serotonin which also helps manage mood. So, when you combine physical movement with chilly outdoor activity, you can stack your mental and physical deck without a lot of extra effort, and ultimately help your body produce its very own powerful, non-toxic, metaphorical chill pill(s).

Not able to get outdoors as much as you’d like to reap the rewards? Then consider boosting cold exposure with alternatives like cold showers, ice baths and/or cryotherapy sessions. Just be sure to discuss it with your doc first to make sure your body is up to the physical challenge (particularly if you have high blood pressure or breathing issues like asthma or are pregnant).

Cold exposure helps top up your immunity tank.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, spending time in the cold — instead of giving you one — can help cut colds and winter ills off at the pass by stimulating the immune system. And, no, you won’t catch a cold from increased cold exposure — cold air doesn’t cause colds, viruses do. “But Doc, I get colds every winter!” While that may be true for a lot of folks, it’s probably not the weather taking them down. More likely it’s a combination of common wintertime health hits like: decreased vitamin D levels (due to less sunlight), reduced activity levels and slowed blood circulation; a less-than-stellar diet (think over-doing it on ‘comfort foods’); and increased exposure to people who, symptomatic or not, may be infected with cold, flu or COVID viruses.

Your best defense against viruses is to get moving and let cold exposure do its thing to help strengthen your immune system. Outdoor movement will not only increase activity levels and add a little light exposure to the mix, but also help boost circulation. That will briefly raise body temperature, slowing or stopping bacteria and virus replication, making your body a lot less welcoming to incoming pathogens. So, instead of hiding out in your WFH office with your face pressed up against the window, commit to stepping out for a brisk walk or bike ride, or even a dip in the sea, all of which can help flush bacteria out of the respiratory system and reduce the chances of pathogens getting a toehold.

Cold exposure can help trim the fat.

Granted, lounging around in a snowbank or leading the neighborhood snowball fight probably won’t make you slim overnight, cold exposure can help increase fat-burn while you’re out and about in the elements. The fat burn occurs mostly because cold exposure triggers the body to shiver, which activates reactions inside the brown fat cells, the ones that our bodies burn for fuel to keep our bodies warm (versus the problematic white stuff our bodies store). What’s more, with cold exposure, and the serotonin boost that comes along with it, also comes a cool side effect, improved hunger and satiety signals — which is always good news if you’re watching your waistline.

Life in the cold lane.

Before you start increasing your daily cold exposure time, keep in mind that those with conditions such as diabetes, heart issues and/or high blood pressure (controlled or not) should be especially careful and get the all clear from a medical professional before committing to peeling off those winter layers.

Enjoy the cold this year!

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