Exercising safely in the heat of summer
After the storms of May, it feels like summer has appeared with a vengeance. Temperatures have soared over the last week, spiking across the Southern and Eastern states and setting records in places like Texas and Maryland.
The warm weather is an instant invitation to exercise outside, particularly if you’ve been hiding from snow and heavy rain for the last several months. However, given the high temperatures and humidity ratings that will continue through the fall, it’s best to keep a few things in mind in order to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Prepare. There are a few things that you can do before you step outside in order to prepare yourself for the heat:
- Wear appropriate clothing. There are plenty of options now that are lightweight and help you stay cool. Technology like CoolMax or DriFit from Nike absorbs your sweat and makes it easier to evaporate. Be sure to also pick lighter colors in order to minimize the heat you absorb from the sun.
- Apply sunscreen. Exercise physiologist Elizabeth Quinn points out that getting sunburned “can limit the skin’s ability to cool itself.” In addition, once you get burned, you should stay out of the sun for at least a few days in order to let your skin recuperate.
- Hydrate. Hotter temperatures outside cause your body to sweat more than usual, increasing your chance of dehydration. Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your workout to stay hydrated (and avoid drinks that contain alcohol or caffeine, which can cause dehydration). If you’re planning on an intense workout, this should include fluids that contain electrolytes, like Gatorade, or eating foods high in such minerals as calcium, magnesium and potassium. You might also consider drinking a slushie before your workout; a recent study showed that the colder beverage allowed for a longer workout than one at room temperature.
- Be aware. The best thing you can do for your body is listen to it. Jesse Harper of Physiquality partner Polar USA, maker of heart monitors, points out that “the same exercise may require much more effort and place higher strain on the body.” Using a heart rate monitor can help you know when the body is going into overdrive. Some monitors will also track your body’s behavior over time, allowing you to see when you need to change your workout in order to reduce stress on your body.
Adjust your workout routine. Exercising in moderate temps is quite different than working out in extreme heat and humidity. Here are some ways to take this into consideration.
- Exercise when it’s cooler. By working out in the morning or evening, you’ll avoid the more intense heat of midday. Carol Otis of SportsDoctor.com also advises to “pay attention to the heat index, the combination of heat and humidity together.” The temperature may not read as hot on some days, but the humidity may actually make you feel worse than a hotter day.
- Do shorter workouts more frequently. For example, Otis suggests running half the distance twice. You’ll be covering the same amount of ground but will be closer to home if you start feeling unwell.
- Pay attention to your environment. If you normally run on dark asphalt, consider finding a path with grass or white concrete. The darker the surface, the more heat it will reflect.
- Train with a buddy. Sometimes we’re better at recognizing fatigue in others before admitting it to ourselves. Running or exercising with a friend means that someone external will also know your routine and normal response to activity, making it easier to know when something is wrong or different.
Know when to quit. By studying how your body responds to exercise, you can predict how long you should remain outside and when you should come in. Technology tests like the Polar Fitness Test can help to predict your target heart rate and maximum aerobic capacity on any given day. And be alert for abnormal responses to your routine — if you’re having a different reaction to your workout than normal, like fatigue or light-headedness, stop immediately and go inside or to a shady spot. You will feel much better if you stop then, rather than pushing through and making yourself sick.
Recuperate properly. After your workout, retire to a shady area or inside with air conditioning, if possible. Drink plenty of clear fluids or sports drinks. And take a cool shower or bath to help your body cool off.
Above all, continue to listen to your body even after you’ve come inside. If you have such symptoms as heat cramps, nausea, or an elevated temperature for longer than an hour after your routine, seek medical attention. The CDC points out that heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
For further reading:
Erdman, Jonathan. May 2011’s records. Weather.com, June 1, 2011.
Heat exhaustion. University of Maryland Medical Center, August 30, 2010.
Heiden, Eric. Dehydration, exercise and heat don’t mix. Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2010.
Brody, Jane E. In summer’s heat, watch what you drink. New York Times, June 28, 2010.
Kolata, Gina. After heatstroke, when is it safe to exercise? New York Times, June 14, 2010.
Kolata, Gina. To beat the heat, drink a slushie first. New York Times, April 26, 2010.
Blahnik, Jay. Play hard, but don’t get beat by the heat. Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2008.
Kolata, Gina. To beat the heat, learn to sweat it out. New York Times, July 3, 2008.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about extreme heat. Center for Disease Control, August 15, 2006.
Otis, Carol L., M.D., and Roger Goldingay. Tips for exercising in the heat. SportsDoctor.com.