Looking after your health in the heat

30 November 2023

As we welcome the summer months, the weather is warming up which has the capacity to affect both our physical and mental health.

It’s important to understand the toll that the heat can have on the body and mind when enjoying time outside in the sun. Whether you’re exercising or socialising with friends or family, if you feel prepared in coping with the heat, this will benefit your health and wellbeing.  

How the heat affects the body 

While it may seem easy to stay sun safe and hydrated when out in the sun, it can become more difficult to regulate our body temperature when exercising or participating in a physical activity (walking, gardening, etc.) in the heat. 

Exercise causes several physiological responses in the body; as we exercise our body temperature rises and our bodies produce sweat as a mechanism to keep us cool.  

When we exercise in the heat it is harder for us to cool down quickly and the inability to effectively reduce our core body temperature can result in heat illnesses such as heat cramps (painful, involuntary muscle spasms), heat exhaustion and heatstroke.  

Heat exhaustion can lead to light headedness, headaches and tiredness, which can then progress to heat stroke – that is, when your body absorbs more heat than it can get rid of by sweating.  

Warning signs may include paleness and sweating, rapid heart rate, muscle cramps (usually in the abdomen, arms or legs), nausea and vomiting, dizziness or fainting. 

This doesn’t mean you should rule out exercising or keeping up your physical activity during the warmer weather but try to be active early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day, especially if you’re exercising outdoors.  

Remember to drink plenty of water; water helps you produce sweat during exercise which in turn cools your body down and reduces the risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. 

How the heat affects the mind 

Heat exhaustion can also affect mood and mental health by resulting in feelings of tiredness, lethargy, negative thinking, frustration, and anger. 

Prolonged heat exposure can disrupt sleep patterns, which can lead to restless sleep and exhaustion. Sleep disturbances are a significant risk factor for mental health issues including depression and anxiety.  

This cycle of sleep disturbances due to the heat could result in exacerbating existing mental health conditions and possibly trigger new ones. Research also indicates that rates of suicide and suicidal ideation rise when we are experiencing prolonged higher temperatures. 

Another impact of heat on mental wellbeing may be a reduction in social connection to avoid the heat, leading to disconnection and isolation.  

People with existing medical conditions may also have a greater risk of being affected by the heat as many medications can reduce the amount of fluid (water) in the body. 

Tips for looking after your health in the heat

  • To help prevent heat related illnesses and to keep a healthy and a positive mental state on a hot day it is important to limit your time in the heat, drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, and wear loose-fitting and lightweight clothes. 
  • If you do take any medications or have any underlying medical issues, take extra precautions when doing any types of activities in hot and/or humid weather. It may be helpful to ask your doctor for advice on how to manage the heat. 
  • Typically, the hottest part of the day is between 11am to 3pm, so it’s recommended to complete any activities either early in the morning or in the late afternoon or at night when the weather is cooling down. 
  • To avoid social disconnection when it’s hot, try engaging in gentle creative activities such as diamond dots, scale model building or painting (to name a few) which can be completed in a cooler environment with air-conditioning. 
  • Before commencing exercise on a hot day, you should consider the workout intensity, duration and location. Exercising on consecutive hot days without being appropriately acclimatised can increase your chances of suffering from heat illnesses.
  • It is important to allow your body time to cool down after exercising. It may help to find a cool, shady area and complete some light stretches whilst your heart rate is returning to normal.  
  • Maintaining a healthy diet can also help replace any electrolytes lost during exercise and aid in recovery. 

It’s important to remember to reach out for professional support if you need support to help process your feelings, practice mindfulness and meditation.  

Mates4Mates offers a range of services for veterans and their families to support their mental, physical and social health. For more information on how we can support you, contact us on 1300 4 MATES (62 837)

For 24-hour crisis support, phone Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, contact 000 or attend your nearest hospital. 

Written by Emily Lodge, Mates4Mates Exercise Physiologist; and Christine Brabrook, Mates4Mates Social Worker 

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