We have all seen them — runners, cyclists, power walkers pushing themselves under the blazing summer sun, awash in sweat, faces fierce with determination or blank with exhaustion, refusing to yield to atmospheric conditions. And we ask ourselves — Is that really necessary?
Ask a committed exerciser, and the answer is “yes.” And if the exercise of choice happens to be a particularly demanding one, such as running, he or she is not likely to be deterred from doing so until the weather cools off. The so-called “runner’s high,” caused by the release of neurochemicals in the brain called endorphins during intense exercise, will compel a runner to hit the asphalt despite high heat and humidity.
And other people want to keep up their exercise regimen in the summer for medical, recreational or social reasons.
So, how does someone who loves and/or needs to exercise do it safely in the heat of summer?
It is wise for most athletes — but especially beginners, seniors,and those with pre-existing medical conditions — to speak with their health care provider before engaging in an exercise program, and even more so in the hot months.
After it’s clear that it is medically safe for the would-be athlete to exercise, he or she must follow a few “common sense” rules, according to David Greene, a personal trainer and strength and conditioning specialist at HealthLinks@FoxCare fitness center in Oneonta.
“But common sense isn’t that common,” Greene said.
Greene’s first exercise rule is “Know thyself. Listen to your body.”
“Lower expectations,” Greene advised. “Don’t try to set records. Slow down. Understand that the elements will play a big part in your performance ability.”
The time of day of exercise is critical during hot weather, according to Courtney Place, an adjunct lecturer in the State University College at Oneonta physical education department, and a group fitness instructor and manager and personal trainer at the Oneonta YMCA.
Place said that it is best to exercise in the morning or evening — “not in the heat of the day” — and to “structure the workout program around that.”
If temperatures are to be excessively high with high humidity, try to exercise inside with air conditioning.
If an individual’s schedule or kind of exercise doesn’t permit morning or evening, or indoor, air-conditioned workouts, then he or she must acclimate to exercising in heat and humidity, both pros said.
“Runners don’t want to get inside to use a tread mill,” Greene said. “If you go outside, keep an eye on the forecast. Seek shade if possible.” For instance, a runner might choose a route through the woods, if feasible, Greene said.
“Acclimation to heat is very important. When the seasons change, get out early and often,” Greene advised.
Physiological changes take place during exercise, and they need extra support in high temperatures, Greene said. Cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercise, such as running, cycling and walking, increases the amount of the body’s capillaries (blood vessels that supply organs with fuel and carry away waste), thins the blood and permits water exchange, which cools the body. Also, regular exercise increases the density of the cells’ mitochondria, which is involved in body fuel development, according to Greene. Improving these functions through gradually increased exercise intensity will help the body perform more efficiently in rigorous workouts in the heat.
Place suggested using periodization — a term referring to the varying of exercise intensity, duration and mode — to acclimate the body to demanding workouts. “Slowly increase over time,” she said.
“It takes one or two weeks to acclimate to working out in the heat. Your system must be ready,” Place said.
Place and Greene stressed the importance of having enough water in the body before exercising in the heat.
“Cells are in a very liquid environment,” Greene said, noting that 70 percent of the body is water. “Slight dehydration has a negative impact.”
“Hydration is of the utmost importance,” Place said. Normal water intake should be 64 ounces daily, but an exerciser needs more, she said. “Replace what you sweat out,” Place said. “Hydrate before, during and after (exercise). Don’t wait until you’re thirsty.”
Place suggested a practice she calls camel packing, which is drinking large quantities of water the night before exercise (often referred to as “preloading”). “Your body acclimates over time” to holding the water overnight, she said.
Anyone exercising for more than an hour should consume liquids containing electrolytes, such as Gatorade, Place said. However, Greene warned against overwhelming one’s system with a sports drink.
Fueling up before working out is key to preventing fatigue and sickness as well, Greene said.
“Don’t go out on an empty stomach,” Greene cautioned. He recommended eating healthy fats, carbohydrates and proteins, such as a peanut butter sandwich, a small bowl of cereal or cottage cheese and fruit, before exercise.
“Proper attire is essential,” Place said. Wick-away clothing, which prevents perspiration from accumulating on the body, is recommended, according to Place. “It pulls out moisture and lets skin breathe,” she said. “It’s a reason to charge $50 for a tank top.” However, loose fitting, breathable cotton exercise clothes are a less expensive alternative, she said.
Greene reminded exercisers to use a sunscreen with an SPF of least 30, and Place said that sunscreen should be applied every two hours.
It’s key to be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and stroke, Place said. These include muscle cramping, headache, nausea, light-headedness or dizziness, and excessive paleness or redness of skin. If these occur, Place said, exercise should be terminated and it is essential to go to a cool area and hydrate with electrolytes.
“Do whatever it takes to cool off,” Greene advised. “Stand before a fan, or in the breeze. The evaporation of sweat cools the body.” High humidity can prevent the evaporation of sweat.
If symptoms don’t alleviate within 30 minutes, seek medical attention, Greene said.
For this reason, it is advisable to exercise with one or more people, because succumbing to heat-related illness while alone may result in serious illness or death, Place said.
Recovery after exercise — not just after heat-related illness but any workout — is the most neglected component of a fitness program, according to Greene.
“When you exercise, you’re breaking the body down. Resting won’t ruin your program,” Greene said. In fact, it will enhance it.
“Swimming — long, slow distance — is a great recovery workout because the water decelerates you,” Greene said. “It gets oxygen to tired musculature, which aids in recovery. Light activity will help you recover more quickly than no activity. Generally, less is more.”
Some people, such as seniors, pregnant women and youth under age 18 should take extra precautions while exercising in the heat, according to Place.
For seniors, Place said her “first recommendation is to bring (exercise) indoors with air conditioning.”
“Heat elevates heart rate and can exaggerate a pre-existing condition,” Place said. “Also, blood pressure is a big concern with seniors.”
For pregnant women, Place said, “no matter what, what the doctor says is what goes. That being said, (exercise is) high beneficial, (to control) weight gain and constipation. The fetus is what’s most important during exercise. Listen to your body. Take exercise indoors in excessive temperatures.”
For young people, the goal of exercise is to instill enjoyment in activity, according to Place. Exercise should be activity-based.
“Remind (kids) to drink fluids, to wear sun block, to rest and seek shade,” Place said.
Those with coronary and artery disease need medical management and input from their health care provider about exercising, Place said. Patients usually need lower intensity exercise during hot weather.
“They should find something they enjoy that they will keep doing in the heat,” Place said, “and have a support system.”