Heavy boots, wool socks, heated buildings, and heavy blankets are adaptations that keep us not only comfortable but alive during winter. Unfortunately, our behavioral adaptations to cold work so well that our physiological adaptations are blunted and the sensory nerves of our feet muted.
Can you train your feet to love the cold or at least respond to it with less strain?
Yes. It turns out you can. Thermal adaptation, the ability of the body to adjust to temperatures such as repeated exposures to cold, takes about two weeks. In studies that repeatedly exposed human feet to cold temperatures (usually 30 min in cold water), after two weeks test subjects experienced increased vasodilation (more blood flow), increased skin temperatures, and reduced pain and tactile sensitivity.
Today’s foot exercise.
- Take off your shoes & socks
- Stand outside for 1 minute
- Repeat several times throughout the day.
- Do it again tomorrow, but increase your time to 2 minutes, and repeat several times.
- Keep exposing your feet daily for increasing periods of time for 2 weeks.
What you feel, your thermal sensation of cold, is both a sensory and psychological experience. The sensation of cold is formed in the somatosensory cortex of your brain and is determined by things like the number of cold thermoreceptors in your feet, the size of the area exposed, and the intensity of the stimulus.
The psychology piece is really interesting. In my experience, as my pain and tactile sensations decreased, my psychological aversion to cold also decreased and my feet began to feel vibrant and alive during the exposures. I now look forward to the sensate clarity the cold brings to my feet. Since I don’t have the equipment to measure the various physiological adaptations my feet may have made, all I have to go on is sensation and psychology – and both say I’m adapting to the cold!
A caveat – seek medical advise if you suffer from Raynauds or chilblaines or have any other condition for which cold exposure would be contraindicated. And use common sense – don’t stand out there like a dumb bunny for too long and get frost bite!
If you want to read one of the studies I looked at, check out:
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