People who exercise are probably familiar with FITT – frequency, intensity, time and type – the basic principle behind almost all fitness programs. The FITT principle applies to everything from running to weightlifting to yoga. For people who exercise outdoors there are three more letters that are important to know, especially in the summer: SPF.
First, a bit more about FITT. Exercise prescriptions are based on four key concepts that allow training to be tailored to meet individual goals. Frequency refers to how often you are training, usually expressed as days per week. Intensity is how hard you are working, which could be running or walking speed or the amount of weight you are lifting. Time is simply how long you are exercising per session. Type is the specific type of training you are doing, which we typically think of as endurance (like walking, running or cycling), resistance (lifting weights) or flexibility (stretching).
Many types of exercise, especially endurance or aerobic training, can easily be done outdoors. Walking, running, cycling and water sports like stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking, are popular outdoor activities, especially in the summer. Being active outdoors in nature improves health and wellbeing beyond the fitness benefits of the exercise itself, so “going green” with your workouts is a great idea! Some sun exposure is necessary for your body to produce vitamin D, an essential nutrient. But excessive sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer.
Excessive sun exposure is a real risk of exercising outdoors, especially for prolonged periods of time. Cycling, running, water sports and skiing have been identified as sports that increase the risk of some types of skin cancer. Unfortunately, sunscreen use among outdoor athletes is low. According to survey results, at least half of college athletes never apply sunscreen before games and practices and those who report using sunscreen don’t use it regularly.
Marathoners, who can accumulate 1,000 or more hours of sun exposure during training per year, are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer than non-runners, but only about half use sunscreen, according to one study. Regular sunscreen use is even lower in the general population – about 30% of women and 15% of men – so even if you aren’t an athlete it is likely you are still at risk.
The good news is that there is much you can do to reduce your risk of skin cancer while you are active outdoors. First and foremost, properly applying (and reapplying every two hours) a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is the best way to protect exposed skin. Some sunscreens are more water and sweat resistant, but still need to be reapplied regularly.
Second, covering exposed skin with light-colored clothing, a hat and sunglasses is smart. Some clothing is more resistant to UV rays than others, so look for a higher ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Obviously, you need to find a balance between protecting your skin and allowing sweat and heat loss to keep you cool.
Third, try to exercise outdoors in the early in the morning or later in the day when the sun’s rays are less direct. Keep in mind that you should still use sunscreen on cloudy days as UV rays can penetrate clouds. This also tends to be when temperatures are lower, too, so exercise may be more comfortable.
The bottom line is that summer is a great time to be active outdoors. By taking a few precautions you can do it safely, especially when it comes to reducing your risk of skin cancer from excessive sun exposure.