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Spring allergies? Or just a cold?

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If you have a cold, you need to avoid infecting others. If you have allergies brought on by spring pollen, there are other things you can do to help.

Sneezing, runny nose, watery and/or itchy eyes, and fatigue? Both colds and seasonal allergies make you feel miserable, but you can take steps to avoid or at least take the edge off them. To do so, though, you need to understand which is which. The causes are distinctly different: Colds are caused by viruses, which means they’re contagious. Allergies come from sensitivity to “allergens” such as seasonal pollen, and they’re not contagious.

You can avoid colds through hygiene such as washing your hands thoroughly, especially after touching public surfaces such as handrails. You can avoid “sharing” a cold by covering your mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze or simply by staying home when you’re sick.

To avert seasonal allergies, on the other hand, you must avoid the allergens (mostly airborne) that cause your symptoms. Common allergens in spring include grass and tree pollen. It can be a challenge to exercise and enjoy the outdoors if you have allergies, but it’s not impossible. Here are some tips to help you manage your allergies:

  • Know and avoid your allergy triggers. If you aren’t sure what you’re allergic to, have tests done by a healthcare specialist to help you narrow it down. Your doctor also might suggest an antihistamine, inhaler, or medication to help prevent flare-ups.
  • Check the air quality in your area every day. If the pollen count (app available!) is high, avoid spending too much time outside, mowing the grass, or exercising outdoors.
  • If you must be outside during high-pollen/pollutant times, wear a filter mask to keep particles out of your nose and mouth. If you have to go somewhere, keep your car windows shut.
  • Shower when you come back indoors to wash pollen off your skin, hair, and eyelashes.
  • Rinse out your nose with a saline spray or solution to help wash away allergens after you’ve been outside.

Winter dehydration

Heading out into the cold? Remember to stay hydrated!

Winter isn’t over yet, so here’s a reminder: You can get dehydrated in cold weather. And it isn’t always easy to hydrate, especially when you’re on a mission. If you’re active outside for less than 2 hours, it isn’t likely to be a problem. But if you’re out in the cold for hours or even days for a field deployment, the combination of heavy clothing and high-intensity exercise can lead to sweating, which contributes to dehydration.

You might not even feel as thirsty in cold weather as in the heat, because your cold-weather body chemistry could affect your brain’s ability to tell you when you need liquid. Cold weather also tends to move body fluids from your extremities to your core, increasing your urine output and adding to dehydration.

So when you’re in a cold climate, don’t rely on thirst to tell you when you need to drink. Drink often and before you’re thirsty. One way to determine your hydration status is to check the color and volume of your urine. (Snow makes a good test spot.) Dark, scanty urine indicates dehydration. Ideally, urine should be light yellow.

Water and sports drinks are the best fluids to maintain hydration, even in cold weather conditions. Carbonated and caffeinated beverages (including energy drinks) have a dehydrating effect because they increase urine flow. Also avoid consuming alcohol in cold weather. It might make you feel warm initially, but it can reduce your body’s ability to retain heat.

Enjoy exercising in the cold weather, but be sure to keep your water bottle in tow.

Chill out and keep moving!

You don’t have to hibernate during the colder months. Exercising in the cold takes a little extra planning to stay safe and comfortable.

Don’t let cold weather freeze your exercise routine. Use these tips to stay motivated, safe, and warm.

  • Dress in layers. Choose synthetic materials such as polyester or polypropylene that stay close to the skin. Avoid cotton since it soaks up sweat! You can always remove layers as you get warmer.
  • Protect your extremities—especially your fingers, toes, and ears. Circulation to these areas decreases in cold weather.
  • Check the forecast. Wind chill, snow, and rain can make your body more vulnerable to the outside temperatures. Plan an indoor workout when the wind chill is extreme or the temperature drops below 0°F.
  • Apply sunblock. You can still get sunburned in the winter so don’t forget the sunscreen!
  • Stay hydrated. When exercising in cold climates, don’t rely on thirst to indicate hydration since you usually don’t feel as thirsty in cold temperatures. You need to stay just as hydrated in cold weather as you do when it’s hot outside.
  • Ask your doctor. Certain symptoms might worsen in cold weather if you have asthma, heart issues, or Raynaud’s disease (when specific body parts feel numb due to to cold temperatures or stress). Talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns before heading outside for your cold-weather workout.

Unmasking high-altitude training

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Should you be using your Pro Mask for altitude training?

Using your military Pro Mask or other commercial mask device as a method of respiratory muscle training (RMT) isn’t going to prepare you for higher elevations. Increasing the strength of your respiratory muscles which help you breathe—your diaphragm and the muscles between your ribs—will improve aerobic fitness, especially for long-duration tasks.

RMT can be achieved through whole-body aerobic exercise, upper-body strength conditioning, and some commercial RMT devices. Studies show that RMT slightly improves performance in those who are already aerobically fit (e.g., military personnel). It offers somewhat more benefit for those less fit or with chronic conditions.

Your Pro Mask was made to protect your lungs, eyes, and face from chemical and biological agents, radioactive particles, and battlefield contaminants. It doesn’t create enough airflow resistance to help improve aerobic capacity. In addition, it wasn’t designed as exercise equipment. There is no scientific evidence that suggests using commercial masks at normal altitudes will improve your performance at high altitudes. Read more about the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine’s (USARIEM) review of Pro Masks and commercial products for exercise training. Check out HPRC’s take on using high-altitude masks and improving work performance at higher elevations.

Noise pollution and hearing loss

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Helicopter propellers, jet engines, explosions, moving vehicles, gunfire, and more—all sources of noise pollution that troops may experience in the line of duty—can affect your hearing.

Noise-related hearing loss is a tactical risk for individual warriors and unit effectiveness. Being able to hear well is crucial for effective communication and—perhaps more important—for survival. While the military has done extensive research and established standards regarding noise and noise exposure, there are a few things you can do to help minimize your risk of this occupational hazard.

  • Wear hearing protectors when firing weapons or traveling in noisy vehicles or aircraft.
  • Make sure that earplugs such combat arms earplugs (CAE) fit properly to protect your hearing but still communicate effectively.
  • Replace lost or damaged hearing protectors as soon as possible.
  • Limit exposure to “annoying noise” during normal daily activities. Trying to ignore noise can increase your heart rate and blood pressure and cause sleep problems and other negative health effects.
  • Report any signs of hearing loss as soon as possible.

Hearing loss, including tinnitus, has become an "invisible" injury and an accepted outcome of military service. Blast injuries from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), RPGs, and mortar rounds are the largest cause of hearing loss for forces in Iraq. Compensation payments for hearing loss as the primary disability increased 319% between 2001 and 2006. While there is currently no cure for tinnitus, there are treatments available.

The DoD Hearing Center of Excellence is committed to preventing, treating, and rehabilitating hearing loss and auditory injury for service members and veterans. HCE offers evidence-based clinical care in collaboration with other organizations and Centers of Excellence to improve quality of life for hearing-impaired service members and raise awareness about noise pollution and occupational safety.

Noise pollution may be an inevitable part of serving in the military, but it doesn’t have to leave you with a permanent reminder. Do what you can to help hold on to your hearing.

Don’t get “computer eyes”

Take regular breaks and adjust your computer environment to prevent eye strain and enhance performance.

Sitting in front of a computer for hours can make your eyes tired, and your visual performance can suffer. To help with potential negative effects, create an environment that has equal brightness everywhere around your computer screen. Try these tips to help:

  • Reduce intense fluorescent lights.
  • Turn on some lights if you usually look at computer screens in the dark.
  • Dim excess light coming through windows with blinds, tinting, or window covers.
  • Avoid glare on your computer screen.
  • Take microbreaks to look at distant objects.

If you’re in an office environment, if possible, turn off overhead lights and have a table lamp for softer light. If you can’t control the lighting in your environment, there are screens you can place on top of your computer screen to reduce glare. In a previous article, we highlighted how 30-second microbreaks every 20 minutes can ease physical discomfort and improve mental performance when working in front of a computer. Similar breaks also help reduce eye strain. Experts suggest looking at a distant object at least twice every hour to help prevent visual fatigue. So if you take a break every 20 minutes for brief stretching, make sure it also includes looking at a distant object to help both your eyes and body. 

“Winter is coming...”

HPRC Fitness Arena: Environment, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Cold, Environment, Winter
Well, winter may actually already be here, depending where you are, so make sure you’re prepared in case of a winter weather emergency.

Winter’s not over yet. The next month or more can bring anything from ice and sleet to “Snowmageddons” and polar vortexes. Winter weather can be dangerous for you, your family, and even your pets if you’re not prepared. In the event of an emergency you should know what to do to protect yourself and your loved ones. The National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health has compiled a list of resources that offer information, tips, and checklists for winter-weather emergencies and general cold-weather health. Stay warm, safe, and resilient!

Prepare to “fall back” gently

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Daylight Savings Time changes to Standard Time the first weekend in November! Be ready with a plan to stay fit despite darker mornings and evenings.

Getting an extra hour of sleep is a dream come true for many of us. For others, the end of Daylight Savings Time means an extra hour on the town or time to catch up on a to-do list. No matter how you choose to spend your extra hour, the amount of sunlight typically decreases over the following weeks, depending on where you are in the world. The change in daylight may influence your outdoors activities, so take this time to make a plan for how to remain active in the upcoming “dark days” of Standard Time.

Plan ahead for outdoor activities in the dark:

  • If you jog or hike outdoors in the morning or evening hours, wear reflective or light-colored clothing to be easily visible.
  • Plan your route ahead of time and let someone know when and where you will be exercising.
  • Have a cell phone handy in case of emergencies.
  • Be vigilant. A head-mounted flashlight can help you see holes and debris in your path to avoid sprains and injuries. Also beware of animals that might spook as you pass them in the dark.
  • If you must wear earphones, only use one ear bud.
  • Bring a buddy or pet!

Plan fun activities indoors:

  • Move your exercise routine indoors. Whether in the gym or at home, there are plenty of ways to stay active. Try High Intensity Tactical Training (HITT) for a vigorous workout. Or take this time to give yoga a try or deepen your practice.
  • Plan activities that get the entire family involved. Even if you don’t have a gaming console, you can try dancing, hula hoop, or a jump-rope contest. HPRC has more family fitness ideas you can try.
  • Finally, think about how much sleep you usually get. Do you get the recommended seven to eight hours every night? This extra hour might be the jumpstart you need to begin prioritizing sleep. For more information on sleep tips, check out HPRC’s Sleep Optimization section.

Why did the Chikungunya cross the road?

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Cases of a mosquito-borne virus, new to the western hemisphere, have been reported in the Caribbean and recently in the U.S. Read more about this virus, where it came from and how to avoid being exposed.

West Nile. Dengue. Malaria. Chikungunya. No, that’s not a typo. Chikungunya (pronounced “chik-en-gun-ye”), a mosquito-borne virus that primarily occurs in Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, and Warfighters deployed to these regions have been exposed to this risk for some time, now, however, it is reportedly spreading to Europe and the Americas. Most of the cases in the U.S. involve individuals who have recently traveled abroad, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just reported the first locally acquired case, in Florida.

The viral illness is characterized by fever and severe joint pain, but other symptoms include headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, and rash. There is currently no antiviral drug for Chikungunya, and treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms. Most patients will recover fully on their own, although sometimes symptoms persist for several months.

It’s important to know your environment. If you’re being deployed to these regions or even going there on vacation, there are things you can do to protect yourself from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne infections. Wearing long pants, shirts with long sleeves, and insect repellent while outdoors reduces the chance of an insect bite. Other precautions include removing standing water from containers such as flowerpots and buckets and placing screens over open windows and doors.

If you think you could have been infected, you should see your doctor, especially if you have recently traveled to high-risk regions. Visit the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for more information about Chikungunya.

How does air pollution affect physical performance?

It is known that exposure to air pollutants during exercise may affect your health and performance, but what can you do about it?

Inhalation of major air pollutants has been found to decrease lung function and exacerbate symptoms of exercise-induced bronchospasms, including coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.  In order to meet oxygen demands during light- to moderate-intensity exercise, you take in more air with each breath. And when you breathe through your mouth, you bypass the nose’s natural filtration of large particles and soluble vapors. As your exercise intensity increases, you breathe faster and deeper, which also increases the amount of pollution inhaled and the depth it travels into your respiratory system.

If you live in or near a busy city, you are exposed to even more combustion-related pollutants—such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM), and ozone—that can inflame your airways and worsen asthmatic responses. Exposure to freshly generated emissions is most common near areas of high vehicular traffic.

While indoor exercise is often a good alternative to limit exposure to outdoor pollutants, some indoor conditions may be just as toxic. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)—the more toxic NOx—is usually higher in gas-heated homes and indoor areas with poor ventilation. Carbon monoxide poisoning is also more likely to occur indoors. When carbon monoxide is in your system, the blood carries substantially less oxygen, reducing performance and eventually leading to carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure to choose well-ventilated areas for indoor exercise.

Particulate matter and ozone are two significant pollutants you may be exposed to outdoors. Inhalation of high levels of particulates has been shown to reduce exercise performance as much as 24.4% during short-term, high-intensity cycling. Women may be more vulnerable than men to certain particulates, associated with greater decrements in performance. Ultrafine particle concentrations are highest in freshly generated automobile exhaust, and these small particles can be carried deep into the lungs. However, the further away you are from fresh exhaust, the less concentrated the particulates.

Bad ozone occurs lower in the atmosphere; it is not directly emitted into the air but is created from chemical reactions between NOx, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heat, and sunlight. Ozone levels also are higher in summer than in winter; and especially in larger, hotter cities, concentrations tend to peak around midday when solar radiation is highest. Exposure to ozone during exercise has been found to increase resting blood pressure, reduce lung function, and decrease exercise capacity.

The risks associated with not exercising at all are far greater than the risks of exercising outdoors; it just takes a little more planning on days and in conditions when pollution is bad.  When planning outdoor exercise activities, follow these tips to limit your exposure to pollutants:

  • Avoid exercising in areas of heavy traffic, such as along highways and during rush hour.
  • During summer, exercise earlier in the morning, when ozone levels and temperatures are not as high.
  • Check the domestic or international air-quality ratings to determine if it’s safe to exercise outside. Limit your time outside on Code Red and Code Orange days. Environmental conditions on these days are not healthy, especially for children, the elderly, and people with existing respiratory conditions.
  • Exercise indoors when the air quality indicates high ozone and particulate levels.
  • Before any demanding physical activity, limit your carbon monoxide exposure by avoiding smoky areas and long car rides in congested traffic.
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