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How to Keep Physically Active in Summer Weather

It’s not only academic skills that can suffer from “summer slide.” As every Houstonian knows, a summer heat wave—which can strike anytime from May to September—can make it a challenge just to walk to your car without collapsing. So if your regular health-and-fitness routine includes running two miles a day in the open air, you may have to shelve that approach for the sake of your health.

Don’t despair. You don’t have to choose between risking heatstroke and getting fat and flabby.

Good for Your Brain, Too

Let’s be clear: no matter how uncooperative the weather, suspending your physical-fitness routine for a whole season is never advisable. Not only does stamina suffer and obesity risks increase, but lack of exercise increases risk for:

  • Black moods, severe depression, and anxiety
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Chronic stress symptoms
  • Low self-confidence
  • Sleep problems
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Impaired powers of memory, concentration, and creativity

That said, anyone being treated for a mental health (or any other) condition should be aware that certain medications can impede perspiration and make a person more susceptible to heat-related illness. So check with your doctor before deciding to continue any fitness routine as temperatures rise. Ideally, get a doctor’s advice before making any changes in your exercise habits, and consider your specific needs carefully (even amount and chemical composition of sweat varies between individuals).

Beat the Heat: Indoor Exercise

Often, the best approach is to move your exercise indoors until the outside cools. You don’t need a gym membership: it works just as well to climb the stairs in your office building a few times a day, or to work out with an exercise app at home.

If you love the outdoors and don’t want to neglect it entirely, more power to you: natural settings provide special health benefits that are hard to duplicate in even the best indoor environment. Read on for tips to exercise outdoors without overheating.

Beat the Heat: Get Up (and Out) Early

Where the weather is hot and humid, the most comfortable time to be outdoors is as early as possible, at sunrise or even before. If that’s impractical, the second-best time is around sunset: the air will retain more daytime heat than in the morning, but temperatures will still be lower than in the afternoon.

(Note: This is a general principle only, so make a habit of watching weather forecasts in case conditions change before sunset/sunrise. And of course, don’t go outside during a thunderstorm even if the air is cooler—though if it’s only raining, that may well be your coolest and best time to get out.)

Beat the Heat: Equip Yourself

Sunrise or sunset, rain or shine, always be prepared for the possibility of it becoming hotter than anticipated. Stay close to a reliable drinking-water supply—better yet, bring your own bottle along. Wear sunscreen and take other precautions against getting burned (which, besides being painful, will impede your body’s natural self-cooling abilities). And choose clothing that is:

  • Light-colored to absorb less heat
  • Lightweight and loose-fitting to let cooling air circulate
  • Made of polyester or other synthetic fabrics (cotton can easily become saturated with perspiration, leading to painful chilling when you enter an air-conditioned building)
  • Designed to cover most of your skin (while shorts and a bikini top may feel more comfortable on a hot day, they also expose increased opportunities for sun damage)

To give your face some additional shade, top off with a wide-brimmed hat.

In Case of Emergency: Treating Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke

Even with precautions, it’s hard to completely eliminate the risk of overheating in summer weather. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, your safest course of action is to sit down in a cool spot and drink a few glasses of water, before a “little” discomfort progresses to cramps, nausea, headaches, or dizziness. Or to the worst-case scenario, heatstroke, where the body’s self-cooling ability fails completely and temperature rises over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Untreated heatstroke kills hundreds of people every year.

A person may be getting dangerously hot (suffering “heat exhaustion”) if:

  • They complain of feeling feverish even though their skin is cold and clammy to the touch
  • They become nauseated to the point of vomiting
  • Their pulse rate increases even after they stop exerting themselves

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should immediately lie down and rest, preferably in an air-conditioned area. Remove outer layers of clothing, then sponge the person with cool water and give additional water to drink. (Add salt and sugar, or include an electrolyte drink, for additional benefits.) If symptoms worsen, or fail to improve within 20 minutes, see a doctor.

The person is likely in real danger (heatstroke) if symptoms worsen and:

  • Perspiration stops
  • Pulse weakens (with or without slowing down)
  • Speech becomes slurred
  • The person has increased difficulty swallowing water
  • They begin gasping for breath even while resting
  • They collapse, become incoherent, or lose consciousness
  • They show symptoms of seizure

Call 911 immediately and request an ambulance. Drench or immerse the patient in cold water, or apply ice packs, and monitor their condition until help arrives. After being treated, the patient should get a doctor’s advice on how and when to resume regular exercise.

Note: If you walk with your dog—whether a service animal or an ordinary pet—the dog is vulnerable to heat injury too, and may not be able or willing to communicate its discomfort. Stick to shaded paths and avoid leading the dog over sun-heated pavement (what goes unnoticed by a shoe-wearing human may inflict painful burns on exposed paws). Make sure the dog stays adequately hydrated (many outdoor water fountains now include a bowl for dogs). And if the dog begins panting to the point of gasping, or staggers or falls, wrap it in a damp towel and take it to a vet immediately.

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