Exercise Tips for Seniors to Avoid Heat Illness

By Kathleen Doheny. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

When outside temperatures soar, so do the chances of dehydration, heat exhaustion and the more serious illness, heat stroke.

The increased risk of problems applies even more to older adults, says Jacque Ratliff, MS, an exercise physiologist and education specialist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "Older adults tend to dehydrate much more quickly than younger [people], but this can be easily monitored and remedied with proper hydration," she says.

Learning just a few simple strategies to use before, during and after a workout can help older adults keep safe from dehydration and other heat-related illnesses, Ratliff says.

Seniors and Dehydration

For some seniors with chronic illnesses such as heart failure, it may be best to avoid extreme conditions and follow a doctor’s advice about exercise and strain.

For those healthy enough to brave the extremes, one way to be sure you're hydrated is to monitor the color of your urine, which should be a light yellow, according to Ratliff. However, the darker it is, the less hydrated you are.

Ratliff recommends to drink before, during and after your workout. What to drink depends on the intensity and duration of the workout you're planning. If you are working out less than an hour, plain water is good. Specific suggestions include:

  • "If you're out more than 60 minutes, pick an electrolyte drink," says Ratliff.  An electrolyte drink is also known as a sports drink, and it helps to replace crucial electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, that are important to body processes.
  • About two or three hours before exercise, drink 17 to 20 ounces of water, the Council on Exercise recommends. A half hour before, drink another 8 ounces.
  • During the workout, drink about 7 to 10 ounces every 20 minutes.
  • To determine how much to drink after exercise, consider weighing yourself before and after.  "For every pound of fluid loss, replenish with two or three cups of fluid," Ratliff says. For instance, if you weighed 125 pounds before the workout but 123 pounds after, drink at least four cups of water or other fluids after the workout.

Consider a rule followed by athletes. After a workout, if you lose more than 3 percent of your total body weight, know that you are at increased risk for heat illness. Consider scaling back or taking extra precautions (e.g., a 150-pound person who loses 4.5 pounds after a workout has lost 3 percent of total body weight.)  

Seniors and Heat Exhaustion or Heat Stroke

One symptom of dehydration is a painful tightening and spasm of the muscles. These are heat cramps, and they usually strike the lower legs, specifically the calf area. For relief, "drink fluids, stretch and decrease your exercise intensity," says Ratliff. Stop exercising if they don't go away.

More serious is the illness known as heat exhaustion. Symptoms include the following:

  • Fatigue;
  • Weakness; and
  • Dizziness and a weak, rapid pulse.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, stop exercising and move to a cool area. Drink fluids, and sip slowly to better rehydrate. Seek medical attention if symptoms get worse.

Even more serious is heat stroke, which demands immediate medical attention because it is life-threatening. With heat stroke, you may start to experience the following:

  • The skin becomes warm, red and dry;
  • Confusion and disorientation can occur; and
  • Sweating decreases.

Moving to a cool, dry area is best until medical help arrives. Chill the body with cold, wet towels if available.

Next Steps

To reduce your risk of heat-related illnesses:

  • Plan to exercise with a friend or your partner to keep an eye out for worrisome symptoms that might indicate heat-related problems.
  • To make hydration easier during exercise, buy a fanny pack with a water bottle holder.

For Caregivers

If an older loved one engages in regular exercise, consider fitness-related gifts such as water bottle holders to remind them to stay hydrated, especially in hot weather, Ratliff says.

Some older adults who are less mobile may avoid drinking too much so they don't have to visit the bathroom as often, she says. If you notice this, remind them of the importance of drinking plenty of fluids, particularly in warm weather.

Some seniors should avoid extreme conditions altogether, and even more so during exertion. During a heat wave, an air-conditioned mall might be a good alternative to walking in the neighborhood for exercise.

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