Effects of Your Exercise Environment

By Kateri Kane PT, DPT

We have already discussed the importance of exercise and the many ways in which it can benefit you.  Certain preexisting conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and several other conditions may require modifications to your exercise routine, but exercise is still recommended for all of these conditions.  One specific factor that may need to be modified or monitored is the environment in which you are working out.

When you picture an exercise environment, you may be thinking of a gym or an outdoor track.  These are physical exercise environments, and while this physical location is crucial, it is not the only component of an exercise environment.  One of the most important environmental elements is the temperature.  Say for example, you are a 25 year old male competitive swimmer with no preexisting conditions who is swimming at a high intensity level in a pool.  You would need the water temperature to be relatively low (between 78-82 °F) due to the amount of body heat you will be producing from your vigorous exercise.  What if, instead, you were a 45 year old woman with multiple sclerosis (MS), participating in a community wellness program at your local pool?  For starters, you may not be able to tolerate the same intensity of exercise as the young athletic male.  Despite the lower intensity level of activity, you will still be exercising at a similar temperature range (80-84 °F) due to the thermosensitivity and possible overheating that is associated with MS.

Exercise temperature needs to be monitored for other conditions as well.  An individual with type I diabetes is insulin dependent, and insulin is burned off quicker in a warmer environment and slower in cooler environments.  This fact is crucial for the parent of a young child with type I diabetes who wants to play outside on a hot summer day.  The child can still play outside in the heat, but the parent has to be aware of the increased risk for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).  The amount of time that the child plays outside or the frequency of testing insulin levels may need to be adjusted in this case.  In relation to individuals with heart disease, colder temperatures lower the threshold for angina, which means that someone who is predisposed to angina is more likely to experience chest pain in cold temperatures.

Cold temperatures are not the only environmental aggravator for people with heart disease.  Air pollution has been positively correlated with an increased risk of decreased heart blood flow which increases ones risk of a heart attack.  If you have a history of heart disease and live in a large city with a high level of pollution, then exercising outdoors may not be a viable option for safe exercise performance.  The same can be true for individuals with asthma.  Asthma can have many triggers including pollution, pollen, pet dander, and exercise in general.  An individual with asthma should attempt to become familiar with their triggers so as to avoid aggravating their symptoms.  Exercise induced asthma symptoms have been associated with cold temperature as well, but one study by Stauss suggests that the combination of temperature and the humidity of the air has a greater affect than simply temperature alone.  Individuals who exercised at body temperature with full air saturation had decreased asthmatic symptoms with exercise.  So, in addition to the effect of temperature, humidity has a significant effect as well.

The key here is to be aware of your surroundings.  If you are unsure which environment is the safest in which to exercise, don’t hesitate to contact your physical therapist or doctor.  If you have any questions on this topic or any others in which you are interested feel free to leave any questions, comments, or suggestions.  Thank you for reading and stay active.




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