DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I love being outdoors. I like running, hiking and swimming. Often in the summer I take my family camping and we do kayaking, canoeing and other activities. With temperatures expected to be above average this summer, what advice do you have to ensure we avoid problems when active outdoors?
ANSWER: It’s great that you are dedicated to staying healthy through exercise, and being outdoors is definitely a bonus. Being active at any age is recommended for all patients to improve their overall health. While some people lose motivation to exercise when it’s hot outside, others enjoy activities that only warm weather can bring.
Hot weather, however, can put additional stress on your body. If you’re not careful, you can become seriously ill from air temperature, humidity, and often lack of hydration. It’s important to take extra precautions no matter what outdoor activities you choose.
Watch the temperature. Pay attention to weather forecasts and heat alerts. Know what temperature should be for the duration of your planned outdoor activity. In running events, there are flag warnings that correspond to the degree of heat and humidity. For example, a yellow flag requires careful monitoring and races are canceled under black flag conditions.
Acclimatize to the weather. If you’re used to exercising indoors or in cooler weather, take it easy at first when exercising in hot weather. It may take at least one to two weeks to adjust to the heat. As your body adapts to the heat, gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts.
Know your fitness level. If you are not as fit as you would like or are new to exercising, be very careful when exercising in hot weather. Your body may have a lower tolerance for heat. Reduce the intensity of your exercises and take frequent breaks.
Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration is a key contributor to heat illness. Help your body sweat and cool down by staying well hydrated with water. Don’t wait to be thirsty to drink. If you plan to exercise intensely, consider a sports drink and water. Sports drinks can replace the sodium, chloride, and potassium you lose through sweating. Avoid drinks that are too sweet and alcoholic drinks as they can promote fluid loss.
Be dressed properly. Light, loose clothing allows sweat to evaporate and keeps you cool. Avoid dark colors that can absorb heat. If possible, wear a wide-brimmed, light-colored hat.
Avoid midday sun. In the warmer months, it’s best to exercise in the morning or evening, when it’s probably a bit cooler. If possible, exercise in shaded areas or do some water in a pool.
Wear sunscreen. A sunburn decreases your body’s ability to cool itself and increases the risk of skin cancer. Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 50 and reapply often if you’re in water, sweating, or doing strenuous activity for more than two hours.
Have a backup plan. If you are concerned about heat or humidity, stay indoors. Work out at the gym, do laps inside the mall, or climb the stairs inside an air-conditioned building.
Understand your medical risks. Certain medical conditions or medications can increase your risk of heat-related illness. If you plan to exercise in the heat, talk to your healthcare professional about precautions.
Pay attention to your body and its temperature. You want to be aware of your body to reduce the risk of serious heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke – when your body temperature is over 104 F. Signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses vary, but may include muscle cramps, nausea or vomiting. , fainting, dizziness or headache, excessive sweating, low blood pressure and vision problems.
Heat-related illnesses are largely preventable. If you start to experience problems, stop exercising immediately and move away from the heat. It is imperative to lower your body temperature and hydrate right away. You can place cool, wet towels or ice packs on your neck, forehead, and under your arms; spray yourself with water from a hose or shower; or sit in a bathtub filled with cold water. Drink fluids, such as water or a sports drink. If you don’t feel better in about 20 minutes, seek emergency medical attention.
Finally, if you have other health conditions, it is advisable to speak with your primary health care provider before resuming vigorous activity.