How to

6 December 2016

How Rubbing Your Hands Can Generate Substantial Warmth

There are numerous ways to keep your hands warm this winter, from Qigong exercises to sitting on them. But perhaps the most popular method is the simple hand rub: clasping your hands together, then rubbing the palms against one another to generate heat. But what’s actually going on from a scientific standpoint when the physical action is being undertaken? Indeed, how can we maximise our body heat when going about this oldest of endeavours? In essence: it’s all about energy.

How it Works

There are five main reasons hand rubbing is able to heat up your digits, most commonly-known of which is the generation of friction on the surface of the skin. Your skin isn’t entirely smooth, but rather has many fairly well-pronounced grooves and channels. These help to maximise friction, especially when they’re made more pronounced against one another under compression.

However, there are other ways in which the process works; the most relevant of which is the way in which the exercise itself increases your heart rate and blood flow. Blood carries warmth around the body, among other things; and getting it into the extremities from the warmer vital organs means warmer hands and fingers.

What’s more, having your hands clasped together means the heated zone is trapped between them, rather than being exposed to the cold surrounding air. Consequently, you should consider keeping your hands clasped together after rubbing them, rather than taking them apart straight after you’re done: that way, you’ll keep the heat in between your hands, instead of giving it to the environment, allowing you to maximise the amount of heat you benefit from.

Fourth, it’s worth knowing the subtler benefits of the activity. For example, it turns out that rubbing is also a massage for the muscles in your hands; which, like other massages, opens their blood vessels and generally loosens them up (perfect for increasing blood flow and combatting stiff hands).

Lastly, there’s the psychological benefit of the whole thing. In most environments, from cold to hot, it’s well-known that the mind is capable of triumphing over matter. The endorphins released from the exercise will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, and will also keep your spirits up in the cold; meaning perhaps you’ll forget about the chill for a moment or two (beneficial, for sure, when you’re searching for firewood or trying to turn your radiators on).

Maximising the Benefits

So, how can this knowledge help us in practice? Essentially, they relate directly to the techniques we should employ. As it turns out, the best way in which to rub your hands together involves numerous steps, and isn’t necessarily as simple as it seems.

Firstly, in order to maximise the benefit you get from hand rubbing, you’ll need to rub them fast. The faster you rub, the more friction you’ll generate, the higher the overall effort will be (meaning higher blood flow), and the greater the high you’ll get from endorphins once you’re finished.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the force with which you’re clasping your hands together: essentially, the firmer they are pressed against one another, the more effort you’ll have to put into the rubbing, meaning the higher the levels of blood flow, friction energy and so forth. Nevertheless, you should also remember not to press too hard. If you do, again, you could end up damaging the skin itself: in a process akin to carpet burn.

Finally, remember some bonus techniques: why not, for example, rub the backs of your hands and fingers as well as the palms? Indeed, you could supplement the rubbing activity with arm movements: survival experts often recommend swinging the arms around in big circles to force blood into the ends of the fingers, whilst general exercises like press-ups can also increase your core temperature, allowing your body to return blood flow to the extremities.

Overall, then, there’s a simple underlying principle: the more energy that goes into the process of hand rubbing, the more heat you’ll get out of it. Nevertheless, there are also supplementary techniques to bear in mind (such as keeping the hands clasped after rubbing) which can help you maximise the benefit you see from your endeavours. So, before you get out there and start warming yourself up, remember the science behind your endeavours.   

James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.