High Heat Hits Home: A True and Scary Story

By Marilynn Preston

July 1, 2014 5 min read

(I wrote this column from a Greek island a few years ago. It's about the dangers of overheating — not to the planet but to you. I'm back there today, it's 95 degrees, the tomatoes are cooking on their vines, and this column is as ripe as ever.)

You know me. I'm a tiger when it comes to persuading, cajoling and begging you to play outside, especially in the summertime. Jump on your bike, mow the lawn, paddle a canoe, do anything outdoors you like that gets your juices flowing and doesn't involve a cellphone.

But exercising hard in extreme heat is a no-no. Heat illness kills hundreds, maybe thousands of people every year. And even if it doesn't kill you, exercising in the heat can make you very sick.

I've long known that intellectually, but I'd never seen it up close and personal until a few weeks ago. It happened very quickly, and it scared the sunlight out of me.

My friend Claire was visiting me on a small, airport-free island in Greece, and naturally we headed for the beach. Her first mistake was to slather on the sunscreen and assume it protected her from the ill effects of the intense Mediterranean sun. It didn't.

Next, she lay on the sand hatless. (Hmmmm ... Maybe I should have noticed and said something.)

Third, she was dehydrated and didn't know it. The white wine at lunch didn't help.

Finally, she was taking a heart medication, and her doctor didn't warn her of possible complications from too much sun exposure.

We didn't know she'd had too much until we walked up a long hill to the house and she collapsed in the kitchen. Luckily, she made it to a chair.

Suddenly, a glorious day at the beach was turning into a medical emergency. Claire felt fireworks in her brain. Her vision blurred, her head buzzed, her arm tingled.

Most frightening? She was mentally disoriented. It's just another phrase on the page until you see it happen and feel so helpless.

"I can't remember what I just thought," she said.

We were on a remote island, a day away from the nearest hospital. Sun stroke? A heart attack? We weren't sure what was happening.

We were able to get her cool and calm and hydrated in minutes, and after a few days of home care — more rest, more fluid — and conversations with her doctors, she felt much better and was able to get on a plane and go home.

Heat exhaustion was the general explanation. Her short-term memory is still a bit wobbly, but it's coming back, and Claire — a nurse! — feels she dodged a bullet and learned her lesson.

And so did I, which is why I decided to bow out of a long bike ride the other day when the temperature was 90-plus. Why risk it? Instead, I took myself inside for some yoga in a cool room with the fan blowing. Life is too short to pretend you're invincible.

And that's my plea to you, Dear Reader: Don't play around with exercising in high heat. Use your common sense. Don't overdo it. If you feel like walking, running or biking, do it in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the sun's most intense rays.

No matter what time of day you're out, pay close attention to how you're feeling. If you're struggling to keep going, give up the fight. That's what listening to your body feels like. Stop and cool off.

Don't wait until you're thirsty to hydrate. Drink plenty of water, before and after, but not too much, because that can cause problems, too.

Be aware of the early warning signs of heat illness: cramps, limited sweating, dizziness, headaches, nausea and thirst.

If you experience any of these, or simply notice that you're suddenly not feeling great, don't push on. Remember what happened to my friend Claire with no early warning signs at all.

And even if heat illness isn't happening to you, it can easily overtake your child, your friend, your elderly parent. Be prepared. The more you know about it, the more coolly you can react.

ENERGY EXPRESS-O! UPDATE: I JUST READ THIS IN THE NEW YORK TIMES "Hot weather kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined." — Jane Brody

Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle expert, well being coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, marilynnpreston.com, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to [email protected] She also produces EnExTV, a digital reincarnation of her award-winning TV series about sports, fitness and adventure, for kids of all ages, at youtube.com/EnExTV and facebook.com/EnExTV. To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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