It’s hard to put into words just how strongly I dislike the heat. The way it allows my formerly clean clothes to stick to my body in a way that suddenly makes me feel like a prized ham on Christmas Day. The way my usually well-functioning brain turns to complete mush and no amount of coffee can resuscitate it. The way a tiny patch of shade turns a usually relaxing social setting into a Lord of the Flies remake.
But most of all, the way some people seem to be completely unaware of it altogether and go about their days as if variations in temperature simply don’t exist, brains intact, function remaining at an all-time high.
A lot of us don’t spend much time in extreme heat any longer and it’s making it harder for us to cope with hot days.Credit:Wayne Taylor
When I first moved to Melbourne a little over a decade ago, the incessant and unrelenting heat of the city seemed oddly charming. It was a backdrop to late nights at rooftop bars and spending hours in parks hopping from one picnic to the next. It was a time of refrigerating wet washers in run-down share houses that doubled as ovens and wondering if the soles of our shoes would warp from heat exposure. It served as a kind of marker for adventure and possibility and a new chapter in a new city.
But as time went on, my ability to operate on no sleep and tolerate the unique quirks of a motley collection of flatmates dwindled while at the same time, I began working in offices where the thermostats were permanently set to ‘arctic’ and I found myself being able to afford to live in houses that offered air-conditioning units. Without realising it, I managed to eliminate the worst aspects of summer from my life. Goodbye jelly brain and three months of exhaustion, hello summers of fun, I thought.
The problem I and a growing number of other people now face is that it seems that in creating a life of comfortable workplaces and cool homes I’ve essentially become immune-compromised to our nation’s long, hot summers.
According to Professor Ollie Jay, the Director of the Heat and Health Research Incubator at the University of Sydney, a person’s ability to cope with the heat is actually relatively easy to address but it’s an issue that is on the rise.
“Air-conditioning has created this maladaptive environment where people are living in parts of the world that are super hot but have cocooned themselves in climate-controlled spaces,” he says, adding, “now most of us don’t expose ourselves to heat enough. And if you’re avoiding the heat you’re not going to adapt.”
The way to cope with the heat in a way that allows us to meaningfully function and push through fatigue, sweat and brain fog, Jay says, is through acclimation. So in order to overcome my hatred of the heat I need to spend more time in it, I ask him.
“Basically, yeah,” he says. “Adapting to the heat is like going to the gym; you’ve got to expose yourself to the stimulus over time in order to see progress.”
Even though it feels a little like an environmental form of Stockholm Syndrome, Jay points out that the issue of rising temperatures isn’t going away and whether we like it or not, learning to live in hotter climates is something we’re going to have to do, not least because soaring electricity prices are forcing more of us to turn off our air conditioning and find new ways of coping.
Dr David Hughes, the Australian Institute of Sport’s Chief Medical Officer, agrees with the effectiveness of acclimation, saying that while exposure training may seem daunting, it’s actually surprisingly easy and offers fast results.
Having worked with athletes across the Australian Open, Tokyo Olympics and Commonwealth Games, Hughes says heat acclimation is the best way to handle hot situations.
“Even within a week of training, you get very quick adaption,” he says.
While Olympians use heat chambers to prepare for competitive environments and tennis players can often be found jetting into Australia weeks ahead of major tournaments to prepare for our notoriously grueling summers, Hughes says the majority of people safely exposing themselves to heat incrementally will pay off.
“If you come from a cold climate and walk out into the Australian heat it’s going to hit you hard, but you are completely trainable. It can be as small as taking yourself out for a walk each day for a couple of weeks. The reason it hits hard is if someone is unprepared for it,” Hughes says, adding, “when you expose yourself to heat the body makes adjustments.”
So now, in a bid to shift my relationship with air conditioning from a place of codependence to healthy occasional use, I’ve begun taking walks that involve slatherings of SPF 50 sunscreen and copious amounts of internal dissatisfaction. Some days are horrible and others are actually kind of nice. I can feel my brain continuing to work instead of resembling a piece of jelly, and the occasional nausea I used to feel after being out too long has all but disappeared. And to curve my air-conditioning addiction I’ve even found a new reward system: Frosty Fruits.
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