Hot Fun in the Summertime

As a long, cold winter is slowly releasing its grip on us, most of us are making big plans for the spring and summer, plans that generally include outdoor sports and activities. Although our activities may range in intensity from casual strolls along the beach to competitive sports, we all need to be cautious when it comes to sun and heat exposure, particularly when our bodies haven’t been given a chance to properly acclimatize. As I go into a discussion of the things you can do to reduce your chances of adverse reactions to sun and heat exposure, it’s important to acknowledge how important it is to pay attention to your body and how it’s responding to whatever you’re doing.

1) Preparation – Preparation is particularly important if you are an athlete participating in high performance events or sports. If mountain biking is your sport of choice, you should be continuing to exercise during the “down months” to keep your cardiovascular health at the same level so it’s not a shock to your system when you start biking several hours daily. All of us should be maintaining a certain level of fitness, whether it’s the season for our favourite sport or not. Professional athletes spend most of the year training for their sports, which reduces both the effects of climate changes as well as the risk of injury. Not only is it important to train for your sport during the off season, it’s also important to do different types of exercise to improve your level of fitness overall, not just in that one area. In addition to exercise, preparation also means having a well-balanced diet, and getting adequate (and good quality) sleep.

2) Protection – In the summer, the two things that you need to be aware of protecting yourself against are the sun and the heat. Protection means limiting exposure, particularly during peak times (10:00-14:00), wearing light clothing with some coverage, using sunscreen on exposed skin, and keeping your head covered. Sounds easy but people don’t think about exposure when they’re just strolling down the street, or driving their cars. Exposure isn’t isolated to sunning on the beach in a bikini, and it’s those who aren’t even aware of it that can potentially be most at risk of an adverse reaction.

3) Hydration – It should be no big surprise that hydration is key to preventing heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Sweating is how our body cools itself off when it’s too hot, either from environmental sources of heat or internal (such as exercise). Unfortunately, in keeping us cool, sweating also depletes us of water and electrolytes that are critical to our body’s function. Therefore, it’s important to maintain adequate hydration before, during, and after exposure to the heat and the sun. This means drinking ample clean water throughout the day, limiting soda, caffeine, and alcohol (and increasing water intake to balance consumption of these beverages). “Ample” is difficult to define because the ideal amount really varies depending on the individual. Feeling tired, having a mild headache, and increased muscle pain after activity are all signs that you’re not well hydrated. Feeling thirsty is actually a late sign in dehydration so it can’t be relied on as an early cue.

4) Supplementation – Not everyone needs to supplement but I’ll mention a few things that may be useful in the summer months. Of course, a good source of all the essential vitamins and minerals is a great start, whether it’s from the diet or in the form of a multivitamin. Additionally, however, people who are either at risk for dehydration or are heavily utilizing their muscles may need a little extra help. When we sweat, as I mentioned above, we lose not only water, but also electrolytes and while it is generally sufficient to supplement with water only, sometimes it’s necessary to also supplement with electrolytes. Gatorade or Powerade are well-known examples of electrolyte drinks, and are fine in a pinch, but are full of sugar and artificial colour, which aren’t necessary. Emergen-C is an example of a packet that can be added to your water for a little extra boost of some electrolytes and vitamins, but Electro-Mix (by the same company) is a better option. There are several other companies that sell electrolyte replacement drinks and powders, but I encourage you to read the ingredients and try to avoid those with excessive sugar (natural or artificial) or artificial ingredients. An additional idea for those with particularly rigorous outdoor training schedules is a branched chain amino acid supplement to prolong exercise performance in the heat.

This is a short list of things you can do to protect your body and your health during exposure to the sun and heat during the summer months, but is by no means complete. Every person, and every constitution, is inherently different and will respond to heat exposure differently, which is why it’s so important to know your own body, where it’s weak spots are, how it communicates with you, and where your limits are. As always, it’s recommended to talk to your health care provider before commencing any new exercise program, particularly if you have a pre-existing health condition.

Be safe and have fun!