Environmental Effects on the Muscular System


Outdoors and the environment play crucial roles on how your body and muscular system respond to exercise. Heat, cold, and altitude are three of the most important environmental factors that impact the muscular system. Adapt your exercise accordingly to account for those factors.


A hot environment causes your core body temperature to rise. Exercise also makes your body temperature rise. An elevated body temperature means the muscles also have a higher temperature. Prolonged exposure to heat and vigorous exercise causes electrolyte and water levels to drop, which may cause cramping and induces fatigue. The one benefit of higher temperature is increased flexibility in the joints, which may reduce the risk of injury.


A cold environment decreases both your core body temperature and muscular temperature. A lower body temperature and muscular temperature means that the muscles are less flexible and may be more likely to be strained with sudden, vigorous exercise. The cold also causes the muscles to shiver to maintain proper body temperature. This causes the body to burn more calories, which may decrease performance in endurance based exercise activities.


The level of elevation or altitude has a significant impact on the available oxygen for use in working muscles. The higher in elevation you are, the less oxygen available for performing exercise. This predisposes the muscles to work anaerobically, or without oxygen. This causes the body to use more carbohydrates than fat with exercise, which leads to fatigue more quickly in endurance based activities. Prolonged exposure to high altitude and high altitude training causes adaptations in the muscles to help the energy utilization switch back from carbohydrate dependence to fats.


Dress in appropriate clothing, such as shorts and T-shirt, to minimize the effects of heat on the muscular system in hot environments. Adequately hydrate yourself, especially in the heat, by drinking at least six to eight 8-oz. glasses of water each day. Bundle up in the cold to help keep the muscles warm and gradually warm up prior to vigorous exercise to minimize your risk of muscle injury in the cold. If you are expecting to compete in endurance based activities at high altitudes, it's beneficial to arrive at least two weeks before the competition to get better acclimated to that altitude.