Friday, 18 March 2011

Try to be Hard in the Cold, and You May Well End up Stiff, Instead

Recently, the usually pampered lives of professional soccer players have seen the banning of snood scarves, particularly popular with immigrant players from warm countries in British or European winter weather. Moreover, there has been some nostalgic harping on about how much tougher players used to be when they did not dress so warmly.

I doubt that, myself. There is a tradition in the colder parts of England that only weaklings are “nesh”, or sensitive to cold, but those who would challenge the might of the weather with courage alone often end up paying the highest price. The UK sees a five figure surplus mortality over the summer months each winter. Yet most of Europe has harsher winters without this effect.

So, why? Because everywhere else, they respect the cold and dress against it. Even without actually developing hypothermia, the thickened blood, restricted circulation and impaired breathing of the thoroughly chilled impose heavy and adverse loads on the body, that can escalate underlying problems from the trivial to the fatal.

But apart from the health hazards, that are probably minimal to professional athletes in their prime, there is the performance loading that sub-lethal hypothermia brings. Getting severely cold not only saps strength but dulls mental performance too: It slows reactions and little by little turns common sense to a pseudo-drunken irrationality. Far from pouring scorn on those wise enough to try to avoid or mitigate these problems, the bravely cold should learn and imitate. My employer recently added snoods to the kit they issue us for working in the cold, and they work.

We cannot go on heating our homes quite as lavishly as we have been doing in the last quarter-century, but we need to be sensible about keeping ourselves warm, indoors and out. Half a million or so Britons sacrificed to misplaced pride in their toughness every decade is far too high a toll. A footballer in a snood is not a big cissy, he is the future, one large step ahead of his detractors and a fine example to follow. This ill-considered reaction should be rescinded, and soon.

As a lot of my two dozen or so readers are political types, there is another angle worth mentioning: Although I started by considering elite professional sportsmen, the real damage from cold weather is borne mainly by the old and infirm. However tight welfare gets in a crashed economy, the next most important thing to sufficient food to provide for the needy is the means or access to at least one warm room. Save in high summer, fuel is an essential, not a luxury in Britain's climate.


TonyTheProf said...

Worryingly, Deputy Robert Duhamel seems totally unaware that in older people (as in children) thermal rbody regulation is not very good, and is of the opinion that they are just suffering from too soft a lifestyle. And this is from a States member who has some scientific pretensions!!!

"Perhaps most Members will be surprised to learn that shivering is an entirely natural phenomenon and it is all down to a particular type of tissue called brown adipose tissue that is chiefly centred between your shoulder blades. It functions by being specifically very efficient in burning up fat and keeping us warm. What is becoming evident is that as modern society moves more and more towards keeping us like pampered guinea pigs in overheated cages we are losing the ability, which comes with age anyway, to shiver. What happens? Well, quite frequently old people are not dying of the cold, they are dying of the inability of their body to regulate their own heating and all the colds and the damp and other things that spread diseases."

What Deputy Duhamel doesn't seem to know is that shivering is a bodily function in response to early hypothermia in warm-blooded animals. When the core body temperature drops, the shivering reflex is triggered to maintain homeostasis. Muscle groups around the vital organs begin to shake in small movements in an attempt to create warmth by expending energy.

Of course with older people, that often doesn't happen because of poor regulatory mechanisms, but even if it did, it is a warning that the air is too cold.

I'd like to see the Deputy take a cold swim on Christmas day morning, and enjoy half an hour's positive shivering in swimming trunks without a towel after; in fact, I'd donate £20 to children in need if he did so!

st-ouennais said...

Haven't heard the term nesh since my time in Nottingham decades ago.

Those disparate seasonal mortality rates are huge. Do you have any thoughts on the impact that diet and exercize have on that. I have an inkling, that increasing obesity is correlated somehow.

Like Tony's comments too.

Ugh, It's Him! said...

Yes, Mark, I think there is a dietary element in there as well:
If one looks at British mortality regionally, instead of seasonally, there is once again an excess of deaths from cardiovascular diseases in the industrial North. I once saw a pair of maps that compared this pattern with the regional variation in average windspeed, and there was a close correlation. As a matter of cultural knowledge, unbacked by any statistical analysis, these are also the regions with the greatest appetite for greasy, stodgy food, and the places where the nesh are despised.
So, I can construct a plausible linkage: Living where there is severe windchill increases the need for high-energy food. Cheap, common high-energy meals such as meat pie and chips tend to raise blood cholesterol too high, if regularly eaten. Letting oneself get cold, lest one is thought nesh, further impairs the blood flow, as well as feeding back on the appetite for calorific food. Thus, poor diet is bound into the problem, as effect of insufficient warmth and cause of some of the deaths.