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How to safely exercise in hot weather

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It’s hot out — it’s the middle of summer, the humidity is high and the sun is blazing down.

Too hot for physical activity, right? Not necessarily, say fitness experts.

While you do need to be careful in the summer heat, with a few precautions, you should still be able to exercise, said Peter Niedre, a former canoe-kayak coach for Canada’s national team and current director of education partnerships for the Coaching Association of Canada.

“You can still adopt a practice based on the amount of heat and humidity that’s in the air,” he said.

However don’t feel like you have to, said Jenna Doak, a certified personal trainer who runs Body Positive Fitness in Toronto. “Nobody should feel like they have to remain active,” she said. “If it’s really hot out and it becomes dangerous at some point, I don’t think people should feel bad for missing a workout.”

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If you’re feeling overheated, exhausted or your mind just isn’t on your workout, you don’t have to do it, she said.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry, or sick and passing-out dizzy.”

Heat stress and dehydration

The dangers of hot weather are real: dehydration, heat stress and even the potentially-deadly heat stroke. And exercising can even make them worse.

“Body temperature rises as you work out,” said Jeremy Cross, executive director of the Coaches Association of Ontario. You also tend to sweat more, meaning you run through your water reserves even faster than normal, risking dehydration.

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So if you’re planning on doing physical activity in hot weather, you need to make sure you’re taking the appropriate steps to counteract the heat and dehydration.

Adjusting your workout

First, Niedre said, you might want to schedule your workout so that it’s not during the hottest part of the day. A run in the early morning or late evening is safer and probably more pleasant than a run at high noon.

Breaks are also key, Cross said. You should schedule a two- to five-minute break — in the shade — for every 15 minutes of activity, he said. Or, if you’re active for longer, you should take a longer break: 15 minutes after 45 minutes of activity. You should also remove extra equipment, like football pads for example, during that break so you can cool down better.

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You should dress appropriately for the heat, meaning loose, light-coloured clothing with appropriate sun protection, Cross said. Looser clothing will allow your sweat to evaporate and help cool you down.

You should also take hydration seriously, Niedre said.

“Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.”

You should schedule regular breaks for water, he said. If you’re doing something like running or biking in the city, Cross suggests picking a route that has water fountains along it, so that you can be sure you always have access to enough water.

Planning a shadier route is a good idea too, Niedre said, so you’re not in direct sunlight the whole time.

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It’s also about knowing your own body and paying attention to its signals, Doak said. “If you feel great and it’s a normal day and your energy is good, then for sure go to your workout. Be mindful, be hydrated and go at a pace that feels good for you.”

If you’re feeling too sluggish because of the heat, she said, “then don’t go and also don’t beat yourself up about not going. There are going to be a lot of really cold, dark winter days you can make up for it.”

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Niedre said it’s also about knowing how well you personally deal with the heat.

“I run all the time or I bike or paddle,” he said. “And I will not train during the day because I know I just can’t cope with the heat. So I choose different times during the day in which to do that, or I try to find places where I’m going to get some relief from the sun and try to reduce the temperature that way.”

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Some groups at higher risk of heat-related illness include the elderly, very young children and people with chronic illnesses, according to Toronto Public Health, so these people should take extra precautions in extreme heat.

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Even if your workout is indoors, you might have a harder time in the middle of summer, Doak said, as you might be more dehydrated after a long day or already be at a higher temperature.

Some signs you might be pushing too hard include things like light-headedness, confusion, headaches, irritability, muscle cramps or unusual fatigue, Cross said, like feeling exhausted after running two kilometres when you normally easily run five. Serious signs of heat stress can include chills, goosebumps and vomiting.

If you start to experience any of these, Cross said, “that’s a sign you need a break and you need to cool down, hydrate and make adjustments to what your plan might be.”

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The Coaches Association of Ontario doesn’t tell people to stop playing once the temperature or humidity reaches a certain level, Cross said. Coaches are encouraged to make a call depending on the weather, what kind of terrain they’re playing on, whether there is enough shade, how much exertion a sport entails, and how capable their athletes are, he said, or adjust the sport to make it safer.

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In team sports, for example, coaches can add more breaks or allow unlimited substitutions so that everyone stays safe but can keep playing, he said.

“You want to put yourself in a safe situation as much as possible, but that daily physical activity is so important,” he said.

“The benefit of that is really, really important so you’ve got to get out and do that.”

But if you feel like it would be bad for your health or just plain not enjoyable, you don’t have to go out into the heat, Doak said. “It’s not the end of the world if you miss a workout for a day or a week or two weeks.”