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Why you should really wear proper boots and a hat in the winter

Jennifer Hsu (grey coat) a graduate researcher at Toronto Rehab a works with Marg Campos, a volunteer participant, studying slip resistance of winter footwear during exercise in WinterLab.

Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Complaining about winter is a Canadian ritual. We complain about snow banks, driving conditions, too much salt, wind chills and runny noses.

But we never complain about winter-health complications. Being winter-resistant is tied to our Canadian identity; we're led to believe any true Canadian can endure even the harshest bout of cold.

The reality is that winters – even mild ones – pose serious threats to our health. From falls to spikes in blood pressure, cold temperatures can be deadly for many people.

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"Winter is underestimated as a problem," says Geoff Fernie, the vice-president of research at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

He is also the visionary behind a new set of simulation centres at Toronto Rehab hospital. Called CEAL (Challenging Environment Assessment Laboratory), the facility consists of three pods and a motion simulator.

Each pod is a self-contained laboratory, looking like a cube-shaped trailer and meant to mimic a different daily obstacle in a controlled environment. StairLab studies how people can avoid falling down stairs. StreetLab looks at how people navigate busy streetscapes. WinterLab, with its ice floor and two industrial fans, tests how people can best survive the colder half of the year.

When placed on top of the motion simulator, these pods can be lifted into the air, rotated and shaken. Stationary, WinterLab's ice-rink floor is flat but once on the simulator, researchers can watch how people walk up – or more hazardously – down a slippery slope.

There is no escaping winter and its perils short of hibernating; this makes WinterLab's research so important. Falls on ice and snow account for over 21,000 emergency-room visits each winter in Ontario alone.

"If you fall and break your hip on the ice, around 50 per cent do not recover from it and will pass away within a year," said Jennifer Hsu, one of WinterLab's researchers.

The PhD candidate in biomedical and mechanical engineering is studying winter boots and looking at what is the best sole for walking on actual ice in temperatures around -10 C and winds as fast as 30 kilometres an hour.

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CEAL researchers have partnered with companies like boot-makers Baffin and Mark's Work Wearhouse to create better, potentially life-saving boots.

"A set of winter boots can go up to $300, but the relative cost is not comparable [to the cost of breaking a hip]" said Ms. Hsu.

Beyond designing footwear, WinterLab researchers are also examining simple clothing solutions: A winter jacket that has an adjustable padded belt that can help shield hips from breaking if you fall. Or, a mask made with tiny copper wires so when you exhale warm air, it heats up the coils making your next inhalation much warmer. Or, a small fabric add-on inside the right breast of a puffy winter jacket that helps people with mobility issues get dressed for the cold.

"We aren't the researchers that put their results on the shelf and let them collect dust. We aren't looking to just publish a paper," said WinterLab researcher Yue Li. "We want to apply our findings to the real world."

Some of the WinterLab work seems self-evident; things mothers have been nagging about for years. But Dr. Li says the reality is that people don't always do what's best for them, like putting on more clothes when it's cold.

"If you look at people in cities, they don't put on a lot of clothing in the winter," she said. "In the winter time, especially when it's icy or slippery outside, your body is already tense, plus the cold exposure doubles the risk to your cardiovascular system."

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Everyone's blood pressure spikes in cold temperatures, causing mild but continuous stress to our cardiovascular systems if we don't cover up. For people with underlying heart conditions, cold exposure can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

A study by European researchers revealed more people in Ireland were dying from cold-related heart attacks than people in Norway, even though Norway is a much colder climate. Dr. Li suspects this is because Norwegians know how to dress for the cold. Her research has shown that even the addition of a hat or a mask can minimize the spike in blood pressure.

Eventually, Dr. Li wants to look at inventing smart clothes, like winter jackets that have a built-in temperature-control system to help curb drastic changes in blood pressures when transitioning from freezing outdoor conditions to the toasty indoors.

For example, when people transfer from the street to a crowded streetcar, many want to take off their jackets but can't, she said. "How can we make clothing smart enough to adjust to this kind of change?"

But for now, Ms. Hsu and Dr. Li hope that all of the hours they spent in the artificial cold will help raise people's awareness of the dangers of real winter.

"We want people to have a larger understanding of winter," said Ms. Hsu. "Sure, most people know they should wear a hat. But really why should you wear a hat and how much does that actually impact people? That's what we want to answer."

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