What the Polar Vortex Does to Your Body- And How to Combat the Cold


After yesterday’s cold snap, it’s safe to say winter is actually here in Chicago. And with the change in temperature (the extremely, no good, unfair, very bad temperature change) comes a change in your body’s activities. Turns out, you can’t help but have a physiological response to the cold outside. Here’s what happens to your body in the midst of a polar vortex, and how you can address these changes and combat the polar vortex for a healthier, happier winter.

Reduced blood flow

When it’s cold outside, you’ve probably noticed that the first things to feel the temperature are your hands and feet. That’s because when the temperature drops, your body restricts your blood flow to just your core and your vital organs in an effort to keep everything warm. You might be losing some surface heat, but your internal organs are staying warm, and that’s what matters.

What you can do: Wear a pair of fleece-lined gloves for extra warmth on your hands and wool socks when you go outside. And make sure to keep your core extra warm with base layers like thermal long-sleeved shirts and vests.


When your temperature dips, your body shivers in an effort to generate heat and warm your body up. Your muscles and organs will shake more intensely the colder you get – especially if you’re wet too.

What you can do: Move! Jump, clap, stamp your feet, do the Hokey Pokey – any of this movement produces the same effect to warm you up as shivering.

You’re bundled up for a run … but you’re making yourself colder

Isn’t it ironic … don’tcha think? You might think you’re being smart by wearing roughly one million layers of clothes for an outdoor run (you winter ninja warrior, you), but as DJ Khaled would say, you’re just playing yourself.

Here’s why: when you’re wearing a ton of layers and you then participate in vigorous exercise (like going for a run), your body will naturally start to sweat as your core body temperature heats up. If that sweat gets trapped in your clothes, it’ll attract heat away from your body and put you at risk for hypothermia.

What you can do: My rule of thumb as a winter runner is to dress for a temperature 15 degrees warmer than whatever the thermometer says; that way, as my body starts to warm up, I’m not sweating through all my layers. This guide can be helpful too.

Feeling exhausted

No, it’s not just your imagination- you really do feel more tired and sleepy when it’s cold outside and when it’s dark sixteen hours a day. Less sunlight, for one thing, can increase your production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy.

Plus, when it’s cold, your body is trying to conserve all the heat and energy it can, whether that’s by reducing muscle contractions or changing how your body uses the carbs you eat in the form of pizza (in fact, your body will use more carbs to create lactic acid, which slows your body down so it retains heat more efficiently). In especially cold temperatures, your nervous system slows down some, meaning that the impulses that control your muscle movements operate at a slower pace.

What you can do: Resist the siren call of your bed and a Netflix binge by making a point to get outside and get some sunlight first thing in the morning, whether it’s by walking the dog or getting a coffee at the corner shop. In fact, try and soak up all the sunlight you can (we’re big fans of going on walks at lunch or taking a quick break from your workday by getting outside).

And even though exercising is often the last thing you want to do, try to strike a bargain with yourself to break a sweat for just ten minutes a day. Chances are, you’ll feel so good once you start, that you’ll decide to finish your whole workout. And if you don’t, who cares? You only set out to do ten minutes anyway. We’re big fans of signing up for a class to hold yourself accountable, but if you just can’t leave the apartment, we’ve got you covered with tons of no-equipment bodyweight workouts.

How are you staying active in the polar vortex? Let us know in the comments!

Fitness Trends Move

About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.

1 thought on “What the Polar Vortex Does to Your Body- And How to Combat the Cold

Comments are closed.