Woman out in the hot sun, sweating and drinking water to stay cool.

SCI Workout Consideration #1 – Thermoregulation

Maintaining a safe and consistent core body temperature is critical for our bodies to function properly. In general, the human body is very effective at maintaining a safe internal temperature because it has a series of involuntary mechanisms to regulate temperature.  

For example, if your body temperature rises too high, the body attempts to cool itself by sweating and dilating blood vessels (vasodilation). If your body temperature drops too low, the body attempts to warm itself by constricting blood vessels (vasoconstriction), increasing metabolism, and shivering. These processes of regulating and maintaining a stable core temperature are called thermoregulation.  

As we exercise, our bodies respond to a variety of internal and external factors that impact our core body temperature. The temperature of the external environment, the heat generated by the working muscles, and increased respiratory functions all put stress on our thermoregulatory processes.  

Most of the time, our natural heating and cooling systems are up to the task and our body stays in a safe temperature range; however, certain circumstances, such as exercising in extreme temperatures or certain medical conditions, can result in your body’s natural heating and cooling systems to become “overloaded”. In fact, if your body temperature rises too high (hyperthermia), or drops too low (hypothermia) you can experience consequences such as cardiac arrest, brain damage, and death.

What Issues Are Posed With SCI? 

If you have a spinal cord injury, you are particularly susceptible to hyperthermia and hypothermia during exercise.

A person with a SCI has limited autonomic control (i.e. control of involuntary bodily functions) below the level of injury. Since temperature regulation is controlled by involuntary mechanisms, the mechanisms that your body relies on to regulate temperature, such as sweating dilation/constriction of the blood vessels, and shivering do not occur or are limited. This might also limit the ability to perceive changes in body temperature as well as an individual without SCI, putting you at additional risk for injury.


Symptoms of hyperthermia (overheating) include:

Symptoms of hypothermia (low body temperature) include:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness

How to Reduce Risk When Exercising 

There are several steps that you can take before, during, and after exercise that can help maintain a safe body temperature throughout your workout.

To reduce the risk of hyperthermia (overheating):

  • Stay well hydrated. Make sure you drink water before, during, and after exercise.
  • Wear lightweight clothing designed for use in warm-weather activities.
  • Dress in layers so you can remove clothing as needed.
  • In extreme heat and humidity conditions, exercise indoors.
  • Make use of fans and air conditioning.
  • Use a cold towel or spray bottle to help you stay cool during exercise.

To reduce the risk of hypothermia (low body temperature):

  • Stay well hydrated. Make sure you drink water before, during, and after exercise.
  • Refrain from exercising in the extreme cold.
  • If you do exercise in the cold, dress in layers and bring extra clothing.
  • Remember that the extremities (such as your arms, hands, feet, and legs) lose heat quickly.  Make sure to protect your extremities with appropriate apparel such as gloves and warm socks.  

Next Up…

#2 Blood Pressure

Further Reading 

Hypothermia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Understanding Heat-Related Illness – Symptoms

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IncluFit is committed to creating fitness opportunities for individuals of all levels and abilities. We believe that everyone has the right to enjoy a healthy and active life. We are passionate about breaking down barriers and giving individuals with disabilities equal opportunity to fully participate in physical activity.

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