Climate change and physical activity: how to move now?

Tennis player Alize Cornet, lying down on the court in distress during the Australian Open.

It’s been too darn hot.  Not here in New England– we finally got a break from the frigid polar vortex, but it’s still winter.  I’m talking about Australia.  They’ve been experiencing near-record high temperatures in Sydney, Melbourne, and other locations.  From a CNN report on Jan. 7:

The mercury rose to 47.3 degrees Celsius, or 117.14 Fahrenheit, in the Sydney metropolitan area.  The hottest temperature ever recorded in the area was 47.8 Celsius degrees (118.04 Fahrenheit) in 1939, the Bureau of Meteorology for the state of New South Wales (NSW) said.

This week in Melbourne, site of the Australian Open tennis tournament, temperatures reached 40C, or 104F.  The reflected surface temperature of the court reached 69C, or 156F.  Yes, you read that right.  And yet players were required to complete their matches, or forfeit. French tennis player Alize Cornet (who famously beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon), said the players were being sent to the “abattoir” by being asked to play in such weather.” (from this article).  Cornet was physically distressed by the heat during her match and had to return to the sidelines for medical attention.  She said: “I kind of felt that I could faint at any moment. Playing in this condition is of course very dangerous for the health of the player.” (from this article).
Here’s another example of a pro player in distress during match, from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Earlier, 12-time grand slam winner Novak Djokovic and Frenchman Gael Monfils called for officials to take action in extreme heat, after playing out a treacherous match on Rod Laver Arena on Thursday.

Under tournament rules, the heat policy will only be applied when the ambient temperature exceeds 40 degrees and the humidity goes beyond a certain threshold. 

Melbourne hit its top of 39 degrees halfway through Djokovic-Monfils second round match, with the court temperature edging towards an unthinkable 70 degrees. 

“If we talk about rules, there’s a rule about index, a combination between then temperature and humidity … I’m not sure about that to be honest,” Djokovic said after his win. 

“There are certain days where you have to as a tournament supervisor recognise that you might need to give players a few extra hours until (the temperature) comes down.

“People might say at this level you have to be as a professional tennis player fit … but I think there is a limit and there’s a level of tolerance between being fit and being in danger in terms of health.

“(Today) was right at the limit.”

Pro tennis player Gael Monfils, bent over, struggling with the heat during his Australian Open match.

Right at the limit– those are words athletes eagerly embrace.  We push ourselves to get out there in all weather, at all times of day, often when we’re feeling tired or unwell or stressed.  And we’re often rewarded for our efforts by the sheer physical pleasure of movement, and afterward the deep satisfaction of having moved our bodies.  We play around with our limits, conserving energy some days, and leaving it all out on the road/in the water/on the field other days.  This is part of what it means to be in love (at least for me) with physical activity.

But when tennis player Novak Djokovic said they were right at the limit, that was not what he meant.  He’s talking about the weather.  Climate change may (and according to this NY Times op-ed article, should) force some changes in how we approach sport and physical activity.

At the Tour Down Under pro bike race in South Australia, temperatures soared to 48C/118 F.  And they didn’t cancel the stage.  They did shorten one stage by 26km and moved up the start time by an hour to take advantage of oh-so-slightly cooler temperatures.  You can read more about the riders’ responses here.

Lots of sports and physical activities are conducted outside.  Yes, we can run on the track, row inside, and ride spin bikes.  But being out in the wide world is a large part of the exhilaration of what we do.  However, rising temperatures and more extreme and frequent storms are going to change how and when and maybe how often we do those things we do.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed more frequent afternoon storms in summer.  They are often pretty intense, with thunder, lightning, heavy rain, and minor flooding.  None of this is conducive to a late-afternoon bike ride, much less a serious training program.

For those of us who aren’t professional athletes, we want to enjoy the seasons, especially the summer, by being outside and doing what we love.  Climate change is going to require some adjustments, however.  Sam has written about skin cancer and the need for sunscreen always.   And we don’t mind sweating (even though I complain about it occasionally), but may have change our workout times.  I may even have to embrace riding very early in the morning.

Readers, what sorts of changes do you make in your exercise/activity schedules to accommodate weather?  Is climate change making you change what you do for movement, when you move, or how often you move?


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