Hot, hotter, hottest. Africa Hot. Like someone's fired up the grill, and you're what's cookin' hot. That's how it feels when you're exercising on a triple "H" day, when it's hazy, hot and humid. Working out with the sun beating down on you isn't just uncomfortable, but it can be dangerous, particularly if you're not used to the heat. Even a relatively brief exposure can bring on heat-related problems like headache and dizziness due to heat exhaustion, often a precursor to hyperthermia, a full-blown heat stroke.
It's a serious and potentially lethal condition when you get extremely overheated and your body temperature climbs above 104 degrees. A heat stroke can mimic the signs of a heart attack and symptoms include rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, confusion and seizures. All that drama just because you wanted to look good at the beach! Worst case scenarios aside, warm weather does not give you license to bail on exercise for the next three months. With a few precautions, you can workout safely during the summer and stay fit year round.
The No.1 way to head off trouble is to hydrate. Drink early and often, before during and after your workout. You need water to flush your organs, lubricate muscles and joints and keep your body working efficiently. The quickest way to determine if you're properly hydrated is by checking your urine. It should be clear and pale, not cloudy or some atomic glow in the dark shade of yellow. Dehydration is unpretty. It can cause severe muscles cramps, nausea and uncontrollable diarrhea, your worst nightmare when you're miles from home without a port-a-potty in sight.
Even if you don't feel thirsty, drink up. You lose more water than you realize from the surface of your skin from sweating. Clearly some people sweat more than others; I'm talking to you, Mr. Schvitz, who never wipes up after himself at the gym. And although gushing like you've sprung a leak won't boost your sex appeal, sweating is good for you. It's one of the body's main cooling mechanisms and can help you gauge your hydration level. For example, if you suddenly stop sweating during a rigorous workout, warning! You're out of fluid and at risk of having a heat stroke.
If you're someone who is "generous" with your sweat or your workout lasts over an hour, it's a good idea to hydrate with more than just water. Sweat contains minerals and trace elements that you need to replace in order to re-energize and boost your muscle recovery. To rebalance your system, down a drink with sodium and electrolytes, but don't just grab the first bright red beverage that promises to "enhance performance." Most "sports drinks" are loaded with sugar; a.k.a. sucrose and fructose, so check the label and pick one without a lot of added sweeteners.
Another way to avoid the heat danger zone is to listen to your body. It's smarter than you are and will try to get your attention when you're overdoing it. You're likely to have less stamina and endurance when you're exercising in the heat. These are signs and your body's way of telling you, better slow your roll.
Because your body is so smart, it knows how to adapt, so you need to work with it and help it acclimate to the heat. People are at greater risk for heat-related illnesses when there's a drastic change in temperatures and go from cool to a sudden heat wave. That shock to the system doesn't allow the body to adjust. It's not used to dissipating the heat and can't properly cool down. Instead, train your body by working out in hot weather in small doses. Gradually increase activity in terms of intensity and duration in the heat. This prepares your body for more intense, longer periods of exercise in warm conditions and helps prevent injury and heat illness.
To help stay cool, dress the part by wearing loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, preferably made of a moisture-wicking synthetic material. All natural is not necessarily best. Cotton clothing will absorb its weight in water and make you feel like you're working out in a wet blanket.
Oh, right! You are!
Another way to beat the heat is to exercise early or late. Avoid working out in peak hours or between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. I teach boot camp classes in the park, and on those hellacious, hot days, we try to meet early, but if we're still out at noon, we'll head for some shade to keep from melting.
Summer is the best time to obsess about the weather. Check the forecast, and if "Storm" predicts consecutive days of high temps, avoid back-to-back outdoor sessions. The effect of the heat is cumulative, so break it up with an indoor activity, take a rest day or opt for a swim.
For people whose idea of fun in the sun does not include exercise, swimming is a great alternative. If you never learned, summer is the perfect time to take swim lessons that may one day save your life. And no tired excuses about sinking or not wanting to get your hair wet. It's too important. Everyone needs to know how to be safe in and around water. The CDC found that the unintentional drowning rate for African Americans across all ages was 1.3 times that of whites. For African-American children ages 5 to 14, the fatal drowning rate was 3.2 times that of white children in the same age range.
World Champion gold medalist and Olympic hopeful Cullen Jones has become the spokesperson for this issue and knows first hand about the importance of learning to swim. At age 5, Jones nearly drowned at a water park when his inner tube overturned and he was trapped underneath. He was rescued by his father and a lifeguard and since then, swimming has become his mission and passion. And although he still talks about having to overcome his own family's stereotypes about why we can't/won't swim, Jones believes that it should be as important a part of our childhood as running.
To find a place to take lessons, contact recreation centers, community pools and schools in your area. And look for information put out by The USA Swimming Foundation. They've partnered with the YMCA to offer free or low-cost lessons across the country. To learn more go to www.makeasplash.org.
Alicia Villarosa is a longtime health and fitness professional and personal trainer. Her blog, Bargain Biatch, is about living lux for less.