With the coronavirus pandemic still hovering dangerously midsummer, many people are using their backyards as makeshift gyms and taking to the streets for cardio. But working out in the heat versus the comfort of an AC-controlled gym comes with challenges—and even some risks. Here are a few things you should know before giving it a go.
Your Body While Working Out In The Heat
There’s a reason hot summer workouts feel so much harder. The hotter the temperature of your environment during your workout, the harder your body has to work to regulate itself to maintain an optimal internal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, explains sports nutritionist Roger Adams, Ph.D., C.I.S.S.N., founder of eatrightfitness. Your body produces sweat, which then—in dry environments—evaporates off of your skin to help you cool down.
Read More: Why Do Some People Sweat More Than Others?
Humidity throws a wrench in your body’s plan, though. The wetter and stickier the air, the more difficult it is for your sweat to evaporate off of your skin, pushing your core temperature even higher, explains strength and conditioning coach Chris Ryan, C.S.C.S.
Add in sunlight, which also raises your core temperature and puts you at risk of sunburn, and you’ve got a triple whammy of trouble.
As a result, in addition to making you way sweatier, hot (and especially humid) workouts make everything you do feel a lot harder.
The Risks of Working Out in Extreme Heat
Try to go too hard in too-hot temps and you put your body in a dangerous position.
One of the most common—and threatening—heat-related issues you may face: dehydration. Even mild dehydration, which is marked by feeling thirsty and experiencing symptoms like a dry mouth or mild headache, puts your performance and health at risk, Adams warns.
Perhaps the scariest heat-related problem is heatstroke. The harder your body works to try to regulate its temperature, the more blood it directs to your extremities to support the sweating process, explains Adams. As a result, blood flow to the heart decreases. “The issue with this is that less blood to the heart means less blood to the brain, which can lead to a heatstroke,” Adams says.
The Potential Benefits Of Working Out In The Heat
All that said, if you do it safely, exercising in the heat may offer some heart-pumping benefits.
First off, the increase in external temperature increases your blood flow, according to one study published in the Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. “As your body starts to adapt to this increased blood flow, your anti-inflammatory response initiates,” Adams says. “This can result in lower inflammation and less oxidative stress on the tissues and cells.”
From a mental perspective, working out in the heat can also leave you with a greater sense of accomplishment, because your body had to work in the face of extra challenges in order to get the job done, says Adams.
Of course, because of all the extra effort that goes into powering your body through a high-heat workout, don’t expect your performance to be top-notch, Adams adds.
The Optimal Temperature For Exercise
Because of a variety of factors—including your fitness level, clothing, and type of training—there isn’t one ideal temperature for exercise, Adams says.
Plus, research on temperature and performance has mostly studied professional athletes—and yielded a wide variety of results.
One PLOS One study, for example, identified 43 degrees Fahrenheit as the ideal temperature marathon performance. Meanwhile, a Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports study suggests sprint performance peaks in hot conditions above 96 degrees Fahrenheit.
This isn’t much help for most recreational exercisers, so your best bet is to air on the side of caution and listen to your body.
How To Exercise In The Heat Safely
If you’re going to get moving in sky-high temperatures, it’s important to take a few safety precautions.
1. Stick to certain types of exercise
“Running, cycling, and rowing are likely candidates for good workouts in the heat as the air movement or wind resistance generated from these activities help to cool off the body,” Adams explains. Exercise that doesn’t create this air movement, though, like resistance training, is best done out of the heat.
Still, keep an eye on your heart rate as you cycle, row, or run. “It’s okay to peak at 85 percent or more of your maximum heart rate occasionally, but you want to maintain a heart rate between 65 to 85 percent of your max to minimize risk,” Adams says. “If your heart rate spikes and doesn’t return to normal when you slow down, drink water, find some shade, and call it a day.”
2. Wear the right clothing
In hot weather, workout clothing that wicks sweat is a must, Adams says. Clothing that traps heat and sweat impacts your body’s ability to cool off and increases your risk of heat-related issues.
Go for a breathable fabric (like nylon or polyester) and opt for light, loose-fitting clothing. Adams recommends avoiding 100 percent cotton, which absorbs sweat and may actually weigh you down.
3. Apply sunblock 20 minutes before you workout
Skin cancer is on the rise (it affects an estimated one in five Americans by age 70), so you should always wear sunblock before exercising outside. Doing so will help deflect some of the sun’s harmful UV rays.
4. Drink enough H2O
Proper hydration is a must when working out in the heat, since the more you sweat, the more fluid you lose. In addition to consuming enough liquids before your workout, hydrate during your workout—especially if it’s longer than 30 minutes.
The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking 17 to 20 ounces of water two or three hours before you start your warm-up. Then, drink an additional 16 ounces of water during your warm-up—and another eight ounces every 15 minutes after.
5. Ease into It
If you’re new to exercising in the heat, go into the process slowly. “Start small and increase your intensity in small increments,” Ryan says. For example, if you can handle a 30-minute jog in a comfortable temperature and, say, 50 percent humidity, you may want to cut that time and intensity in half when running in hot, humid weather.
As you adjust workout by workout, “add five minutes per session, and by your fourth workout, you will be back to your normal routine,” he adds.
Also, keep in mind that “feeling exceptionally ‘whooped’ from easy workouts several hours later is very common when starting out with training in the heat and humidity,” says Ryan. You may need extra rest and recovery time at first, so listen to your body.
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