Physiology of exercise in the cold

Sports Med. 1991 Jun;11(6):367-81. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199111060-00003.


Recreational and job requirements have increased the incidence in which humans exercise in cold environment. Understanding the physiological responses while exposed to cold entails knowledge of how exercise and cold interact on metabolic, cardiopulmonary, muscle and thermal aspects of human performance. Where possible, distinction are made between responses in cold air and cold water. While there is no consensus for diets most appropriate for working cold exposures, the evidence is strong that adequate amounts of carbohydrate are necessary. Carbohydrate loading appears to be efficacious, as it is for other athletic endeavours. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the combination of exercise and cold exposure does not act synergistically to enhance metabolism of fats. Free fatty acid (FFA) levels are not higher, and may be lower, with exercise in cold air or water when compared to corresponding warmer conditions. Glycerol, a good indicator of lipid mobilisation, is likewise reduced in the cold, suggesting impaired mobilisation from adipose tissue. Catecholamines, which promote lipolysis, are higher during exercise in cold air and water, indicating that the reduced lipid metabolism is not due to a lack of adequate hormonal stimulation. It is proposed that cold-induced vasoconstriction of peripheral adipose tissue may account, in part, for the decrease in lipid mobilisation. The respiratory exchange ratio (RER) is often similar for exercise conducted in warm and cold climates, suggesting FFA utilisation is equivalent between warm and cold exposures. The fractional portion of oxygen consumption (VO2) used for FFA combustion may decrease slightly during exercise in the cold. This decrease may be related to a relative decrease in oxygen delivery (i.e. muscle blood flow) or to impaired lipid mobilisation. Venous glucose is not substantially altered during exercise in the cold, but lactate levels are generally higher than with work in milder conditions. The time lag between production of lactate within the muscle and its release into the venous circulation may be increased by cold exposure. Minute ventilation is substantially increased upon initial exposure to cold, and a relative hyperventilation may persist throughout exercise. With prolonged exercise, though, ventilation may return to values comparable to exercise in warmer conditions. Exercise VO2 is generally higher in the cold, but the difference between warm and cold environments becomes less as workload increases. Increases in oxygen uptake may be due to persistence of shivering during exercise, to an increase in muscle tonus in the absence of overshivering, or to nonshivering thermogenesis. Heart rate is often, but not always, lower during exercise in the cold.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Temperature Regulation
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Cold Temperature*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Lactates / metabolism
  • Lactic Acid
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Oxygen Consumption


  • Lactates
  • Lactic Acid