We hear about it every time there is a summer heat wave: If you are old, stay inside–you are in danger of heat stroke.
So naturally, we all assume that once we are of a certain age, we are just more susceptible to the dangers of hot weather–that’s what everyone says, so it must be a simple fact of life.
But you love your daily run. In fact, running is part of your life–you crave the meditative rhythm, the stress relief and the relaxed, focused feeling it leaves you with.
Plus, your ability to eat like a teenager while maintaining a healthy weight isn’t too bad either.
However, you ARE getting older, and as we know, heat stress in the elderly is a big deal. In fact, many say that running and other strenuous endurance sports should be avoided altogether once we reach a certain age–and there are those ever-concerned friends, neighbors and relatives who tell you that a heart attack is imminent, should you continue your foolish ways.
And yet, there you are–out on a 94 degree afternoon, breezing over the trails like there is no difference between being 21 and 51, despite what everyone says about summer heat and the elderly not mixing.
So why does it feel like they are so wrong?
What Science Tells Us
As it turns out, both you and your detractors are correct. Older folks DO have a higher incidence of heat-related health problems than do young people; although you, being the active person you are, likely have nothing to worry about.
You see, older people are typically inactive, and therefore no longer have the aerobic capacity they did when they were younger and more active. When we lose aerobic capacity (VO2 max), we become more susceptible to higher heart rates, higher core temperature, and lower sweat rates when the temperature goes up.
However, research shows us that when we remain active and in shape, we keep a higher percentage of our VO2 max, which–as it turns out–is our key indicator in our body’s ability to manage heat.
How Old is Too Old?
But there has to be a limit to this, you say? Again, the answer is yes and no. Consistency it seems is our friend when it comes to aging and exercising, since, as we get older, we permanently lose some of our muscle fibers and aerobic capacity due to inactivity, while other muscle fibers merely atrophy through lack of use. What this means is that by consistently exercising, we are keeping our muscles from atrophying and our VO2 max strong, while at the same time, limiting the effects of age related muscle fiber and VO2 max loss.
We should also mention that while both atrophied muscles and most aerobic capacity can be returned to fitness with exercise, once muscle fibers and VO2 max are lost, thats it–use it or lose it.
So when we are young and take extended breaks from our exercise routine, we have no problem bouncing back, since we are still able to produce new muscle fiber, or at least reignite atrophied fibers.
However, once we become a bit “birthday rich,” our ability to bounce back into shape diminishes, and we also permanently lose a higher amount of fitness the more time we spend away from our exercise routine.
Naturally, some permanent decline is imminent, which is why we don’t see any 70 year old athletes in the NBA and such.
However, this doesn’t mean that many of us can’t play at a high level well into our senior years–we just may not be able to keep up with the speedy young whippersnappers anymore.
So its Not My Age That I Need to Worry About?
Getting back to the dangers of heat stroke in the elderly, we find some interesting information which relates more to fitness than to age. As it turns out, the reason most older folks have to worry about the dangers of hot weather is due to a lack of physical fitness, and not mere age.
What we find is that physically inactive people of nearly any age are the ones in danger of heat stroke and inefficient body heat regulation, rather than only those with the pleasure of having had the most birthdays.
In fact, older people in good cardiovascular condition can be safer in hot weather than younger people who are in poor physical condition, and just as safe as anyone else who has maintained their fitness.
Obviously, this is good news to many of us who don’t want to give up our daily outdoor exercise no matter how hot it is, or how old others think we are. In fact, on average, runners live 3 years longer than non-runners, and have a 50% lower risk for cardiovascular related death–something to think about next time you are deciding between the couch and the trails. However, this does not mean that common sense should not be used in hot weather:
- Take adequate water with you, and drink before you are thirsty.
- If you experience dizziness, stop sweating despite the heat, or become lightheaded and nauseous with a rapid heart beat, get to a cool place and drink plenty of fluids immediately.
- Take breaks in shady places.
- Avoid the hottest parts of the day, and take a shady route if possible.
- Cover up with loose fitting clothing so as not to get sunburned (but don’t cover up so much that you are missing out on all that good, natural vitamin D which the sun provides!).
So even though you are getting up there and have a little snow on the roof, just remember that running in ANY weather will keep the fire lit in the furnace.
And no, you are not more susceptible to the dangers of hot weather than the youngsters are, so long as you are in shape.
The bottom line? Continuing to exercise as you get older will not only keep you healthy and feeling great, but can also reduces dangers associated with heat intolerance.
So get out there, be healthy and show those dang young whippersnappers how its done!