By Alexia Severson
Summer is the perfect time to get outside, breathe in some fresh air, and reap the physical and mental benefits of exercising outdoors! Working out outside can help you burn more calories, relieve stress and improve self-esteem. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Glasgow University, any kind of physical activity, such as walking, running or cycling among trees and grass improves mood 50 percent more than exercising at the gym.
However, if you're not careful, exercising in the summer sun can also put you at risk for heat-related illnesses or serious skin damage. So before you hit the road, keep these sun-safety tips in mind.
Sunscreen is your best defense against skin cancer, the most common form of cancer, affecting more than two million people in the U.S. each year, according the Skin Cancer Foundation. As soon as you step outside, your skin starts to soak up the sun's harsh rays, so it's important to understand proper sunscreen usage:
While a hot day might make you want to wear shorts and a tank top, the more skin you expose during your workout, the higher your risk of getting burned. If bearable, opt for lightweight, breathable workout pants and a breathable long-sleeved shirt instead. But be careful, certain materials with loose weaves, such as light, sheer materials, can have spaces between the fabric in which UV rays can pass through to the skin.
You can also buy special sun-protective clothing, like Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) fitness apparel. UPF fabrics are specially treated with chemical UV absorbers, or colorless dyes that prevent some penetration of UVB and UVA rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sun-protective fabrics should have a UPF rating of 30 or higher.
Wearing sunglasses and a hat are key accessories to protect your face and eyes from sun damage. A wide-brimmed hat provides the best protection from the sun, but it may not be very practical for certain exercises, like running outdoors. Instead, try a baseball cap, visor or other type of sports hat that shields your face, head and the back of your neck.
Sunglasses should be comfortable, lightweight and provide 100 percent UV protection. Find a pair that fits comfortably and won’t be too tight or too lose on your face — you don't want them to fall off mid-exercise!
If you're not used to hot weather (getting acclimated to the heat can take several weeks), you have a greater risk of dehydration and heatstroke. Limit the amount of time you spend outside and try to exercise during the cooler parts of the day, such as in the early morning or evening.
You should also drink plenty fluids. The amount of fluid your body needs to stay hydrated depends on how long you exercise and how much you sweat. The more you sweat, the more fluids need to be replenished. Drink fluids before, during and even after you’ve finished your workout. If you plan on exercising at a high level of intensity for a long period of time, pack a sports drink that contains sodium to help replace electrolytes lost in sweat.
"Hydration is very important when exercising in the heat because even slight dehydration can negatively affect your performance," said Shanna Burnette, a long-time competitive runner who participated in two Division I National Championship cross-country teams.
Proper hydration takes planning, she notes. "It's important to properly hydrate the day before you exercise in the heat just as much as it is the day you are exercising."
You may be able to run long distances at high speed on a cool day, but exercising in the heat puts extra strain on your body. And if the humidity is also high, your sweat won't evaporate from your skin as quickly, causing your body temperature to rise.
"If you're a runner, you might run slower when the heat and humidity are higher," said Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, USA Track & Field certified coach, and the owner of Strength Running. "That's okay! Exercising in these difficult conditions is similar to training at altitude; you can't run as fast, cycle as hard, or exert yourself like when you're at sea level. Now is the time to leave your GPS watch at home and instead rely on effort."
Pushing through the last bit of a workout might help you finish strong, but doing so when the mercury is high could lead to heat exhaustion, a result of your body overheating. Common signs of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, headache, fainting, weakness, or cold, clammy skin. In severe cases, heat exhaustion can also lead to heatstroke (when your body temperature reaches 104°F or higher). If left untreated, heatstroke can cause brain damage, organ failure or even death.
If you experience any of these symptoms, get out of the heat, drink water and cool yourself down with a fan or wet cloth. If symptoms don't improve within 30 minutes, call a doctor.
What you do post workout is also important, Burnette said, because overheating can continue even after your workout is over. If you have the time, hop into a cold shower or ice bath to cool your core temperature. "Also, make sure you get a healthy snack in after your workout," she said. "When you exercise in the heat, it's hard to think about food for awhile after you are done working out, but you need to eat in order to recover."
Published July 23, 2013
Alexia Severson earned her Master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism and is a health and lifestyle writer living in San Francisco.