As we count down the days of summer in what is now officially the fourth hottest year on record, it is important to remind ourselves that sweltering conditions are not just oppressive and uncomfortable, they can prove hazardous to your health. As I pointed out last week, multiple studies show that health problems are generally more likely to occur in the summer months than other times of the year. The heat certainly does not help matters.
An added factor to the health concerns of many Americans is the current number of wildfires raging around the country. As I write this, according to Reuters News, the number of major active blazes nationwide stands at over 100, hitting Washington, New Mexico and California extra hard. More than 30,000 personnel, including firefighters from across the United States and nearly 140 from Australia and New Zealand are on the line battling these blazes. Our hearts and hopes go out to them.
Putting the devastating effects of wildfires aside, we need to be mindful that extremely hot temperatures by themselves can be lethal if we do not take precautions. This certainly includes staying hydrated while avoiding sugary drinks, caffeine and alcohol. People also need to be conscious of the signs of overheating. When you feel the effects coming on, do what you can to get to a cool or shaded area. Allow time for your breathing and heart rate to slow to normal.
Being as aerobically fit as possible in such conditions increases your ability to handle the heat. It is well established that exercise helps you live longer and lowers risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. A new study in the Lancet Psychiatry journal also shows that when done in moderation, exercise leads to better mental health as well.
Getting that exercise in the great outdoors adds to these health benefits. According to global data involving more than 290 million people assembled by researchers at the University of East Anglia, it was shown that populations with higher levels of greenspace exposure were more likely to report good overall health. In the study, “green space” was defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban greenspace (including urban parks and street greenery).
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, under the blazing sun, roofs and pavement can reach temperatures from 50 to 90 degrees higher than the air temperature. It is called the heat island effect. That is why experts suggest that, when things heat up outdoors in an urban setting, head for any patch of green you see, ideally one with some trees for shade. Trees and plants contain moisture and are considered living air conditioners. They provide evaporative cooling.
Michael Sawka, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who studies how humans adapt to extreme conditions, tells Live Science that it is important to acclimate yourself to the weather conditions you are exposed to. It does not take as much time as you might imagine. Spending just 100 minutes a day outside over four to 10 days is enough, says Sawka. Being outside, in a natural setting, can lead to significant health and de-stressing benefits. Some very preliminary studies suggest that spending time in nature may stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins.
Studies have shown that something about being outside changes the physical expression of stress in the body. We have all undoubtedly experienced the restorative power of being in the natural environment. If being out and about is part of your daily routine, it is important to try to stick with it. Being active during the day and sleeping at night is part our natural circadian rhythms. According to CNN, a new study found this natural cycle is linked to improvements in mood and cognitive functioning as well as a decreased likelihood of developing clinical depression disorder.
A seasonal word of caution is needed as you head off into the woods: Try to walk in the center of trails and to avoid dense, brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. A new report has found that the tick-borne illness Lyme disease has now been detected in all 50 states. Lyme disease is the most common insect-borne disease in the U.S. and outbreaks traditionally peak during June and July. At last report, cases are continuing to rise. Some reports show that tick infestations in general are spreading to new areas as temperatures climb and ticks are finding it easier to survive in new regions.
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics if detected early. If left untreated, it can lead to joint, heart and nerve damage.
To protect yourself from tick bites, use a repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET on exposed skin, and one that contains the insecticide permethrin on clothing. Always conduct a full-body tick check after coming in from a wooded or bushy area.
The Center for Disease Control and Protection also recommends bathing or showering as soon as possible after coming indoors to more easily identify ticks on your body. Also, examine clothing, gear and pets for ticks. Speaking on “CBS This Morning” recently, Dr. Tara Narula additionally recommends putting your clothes from your outing in the dryer on high-heat for ten minutes as an additional precaution.
Do not let anything prevent you from getting the exercise and outdoor time you need. Staying indoors and sedentary has its own health consequences.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.