In many parts of the world north of the equator it's pretty cold right now, even on east coast where folks celebrated the recent winter holidays in t-shirts! As I was walking down the street yesterday in Victoria, Canada, my down "sleeping bag coat" zipped up and snug around me, tuque, scarf and gloves in place, I'll admit that I felt somewhat overdressed, and even a bit self-conscious on a fairly mild December day.
Then I noticed something: while I was walking freely, swinging my arms with shoulders square and broad, neck relaxed and free to look around, other less warmly-dressed pedestrians were not looking quite so carefree: A quick scan of the sidewalk revealed a woman in skinny black jeans and a short acrylic sweater taking teeny-tiny steps while hunched over staring at the ground. A man in a light hoody huddled in with his girlfriend, who was sporting a jean jacket over light clothing, arms squeezed in towards her sides and shoulders hunched. The more I looked around, the better I felt about my down encasement ensemble. I wasn't rushing to escape the cold by getting indoors, in fact I was enjoying being both warm and outdoors. I wasn't shivering -- truth-be-told I was actually staring to sweat a bit; maybe I didn't need that mid layer after all.
Did I look as stylish as these folks braving the cold on the sidewalk next to me? Not even a little bit.
But let's talk about what's happening when we sacrifice warmth for style. As we've all experienced, the main reaction when humans get cold is to contract. In an attempt to keep our insides warm, everything pulls inwards toward the center of the body, even our blood vessels constrict, limiting circulation to our distal tissues. We are essentially pulling in towards a fetal position, that soothing shape that ensures protection for our organs in the front of the body, where we have fewer bony protections.
To unpack the effects even further, in an attempt to create a fleshy turtle-neck, our upper trapezius and levator scapula (the muscle you'd use to prop a phone between your ear and shoulder), shrug upwards towards our ears. Right next door, the anterior deltoids (shoulder muscles) pull in, bringing our pectoralis major and minor (chest muscles) along with them. The contraction party is raging. Because the upper trapezius are bringing the shoulders up around the ears, our rhomboids, which would normally rest tautly on our back between our shoulder blades, become stretched and ineffective at helping our collarbones stay broad. We become hunched. We're now fighting a losing battle: with the upper body so dramatically compromised, the lower body, starting with the pelvis, has no choice but to change its position as well. It will move from a neutral pelvis into a tucked pelvis, and the superficial hip flexors in particular (some of the muscles that lift your leg up to take a step), shorten. The quadraceps in the front of the legs may then become tight and the hamstrings slack, ensuring tight shuffling steps. It's no wonder so many of us complain of tight muscles in the colder months!
Employed every once in a while, our body's warming strategy is fantastic, but not if we use it on regular basis! So this winter you may want to consider ditching the light jacket and model-hunch posture for a warm and puffy coat and some wind-shielding accessories*. Then you can truly enjoy the freshness of the outdoors and rest easy in the cozy cocoon you've created.
*I recommend leg-warmers.
Téana David is the former Director of Pilates Education at David Barton Gym in New York City. She currently teaches Pilates alongside physiotherapists at FIX Healthcare in Victoria, BC.