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Heat Advisory: When Exercise Could Be Bad For Your Health

Photo by Flickr user slapstix55.

As a stifling heat wave continues to deep bake much of the country, a study released this week has news for overzealous athletes: That toned body isn’t a shield for heat exhaustion.

Each year, about 6,000 Americans are rushed to the emergency room after overheating during a sport or recreational activity, according to the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a startling figure given that most Americans generally know that excess heat can be extremely dangerous, said lead researcher Ellen Yard, an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the CDC.

“The number is more than we thought and it’s certainly higher than what we were hoping to see,” Yard said. “Each of these illnesses is entirely preventable so even one visit to the emergency room is too many.”

By studying data from 2001-2009 for 66 hospitals throughout the nation, the CDC report concluded that about 25 percent of non-fatal, heat-related illnesses are caused by football. Exercise, including walking, jogging and calisthenics, came in second place, accounting for about 20.4 percent of the emergency room visits.

Males make up the vast majority of the emergency room visits — 72.5 percent of the cases — and the problem is most severe for 15- to 19-year-olds.

“Many of these individuals are high school age, and that points to a greater role for parents, teachers, and coaches. There are some simple steps that can be taken to avoid this completely in this particular age group,” said Christopher Portier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

Those steps include staying out of the sun in the middle of the day when it’s hottest, wearing light clothing and plenty of sunscreen, and above all, drinking water early and often. When heat exhaustion does set in, the most common signs of trouble include cramps, headache, dizziness, nausea, and the general feeling of being unbearably hot. If an athlete stops sweating or develops a very rapid, strong pulse, they should be rushed to the emergency room immediately, Portier said.

“If they stay outdoors with those symptoms, unconsciousness could set in. And at that point it’s really life threatening,” Portier said.

Close to 92 percent of the patients examined for the report were treated and released, but 7 percent were hospitalized or transferred to another facility for a higher level of care.

Numbers from the study are probably “an underestimate of all heat illnesses” because only non-fatal heat illnesses were counted, the CDC officials said.

Douglas Casa, spokesman for the National Athletic Trainers Association, has one sentence to succinctly fill the gap in the report: “Sudden death in sport is a huge problem.”

In the last 35 years, there have been about 10 sport-related heat stroke deaths for every five-year period, he said. In the last five years, however, the number doubled to 20.

“At the youth level, these practice and conditioning programs are much more intense than they used to be. Sometimes the coaches get a little carried away, and unfortunately they don’t have the medical staff to respond appropriately,” he said.

Added to that is the fact that most Americans have grown accustomed to exercising indoors and are not well-equipped for heavy exertion in the heat. Coaches can compensate by gradually ramping up outdoor training in the summertime to help their athletes adjust slowly.

Casa, who is also the chief operating officer at the Korey Stringer Institute — an organization named for the Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who died from heat stroke in 2001 — spends much of his time thinking about how to bring these numbers down. The answer is simple, he’s concluded: train the coaches. Especially at the high school level, many deaths take place in the presence of a coach who has no training on the symptoms and treatments for heat-related illness.

“We keep losing people from heat stroke and it’s entirely preventable. We’re not protecting the athletes by having coaches who don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “We need training, credentialing, and better season-specific policies related to heat stroke. And with all of this, we have a long, long way to go.”

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