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Dealing with Singapore's heat: Are you doing it right?

An expert shares must knows on how to beat the heat in tropical Singapore

Woman sitting in front of the fan to beat the heat in Singapore (left) and Singapore skyline with afternoon sun
Woman sitting in front of the fan to beat the heat in Singapore (left) and Singapore skyline with afternoon sun. (Photos: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — While you may have heard some common tips like drinking more water and avoiding the sun, not all of them are accurate when it comes to staying cool and beating the heat!

The Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS) is predicting El Niño conditions to continue up till October this year, so the heat is here to stay. What can we actually do to cool ourselves down?

Yahoo Southeast Asia spoke with Associate Professor Jason Lee, Director of the Heat Resilience and Performance Centre at Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine from National University of Singapore (NUS) to learn how heat affects our bodies and what we can do to cope with warmer weather.

Singaporeans are not heat acclimatised

According to Lee, Singaporeans stay indoors most of their time, limiting their exposure to the sun.

"Most Singaporeans spend majority of their time indoors. They only go outdoors during commute to work, these days many also exercise indoors at the gym or at home," said Lee.

However, lesser exposure to the heat will not help us adapt to rising temperatures.

One key concern is that our knowledge on extreme heat are based on seasonal heatwaves in Europe and North America. This differs from our geographical location with less extreme temperature changes.

For us in this region, we experience chronic heat stress throughout the year, therefore certain behavioural adjustments have been made which can be detrimental to our health (lack of exposure to outdoor activities, etc). Moreover, we are nearing the human thermal limits. As such, when our temperature rises by two or three degrees, it feels unbearable to us.

Lee suggests redefining what chronic heat exposure means for tropical countries like Singapore. It's essential to understand the types of heat-related illnesses and their effects.

Types of heat-related illnesses and effects

According to Lee, classic heatstroke is caused by environmental heat and is more common among infants and the elderly, while exertional heatstroke results from physical exercise leading to excessive production of metabolic heat often seen in personnel involved in exertional work.

Heat syncope, on the other hand, occurs when standing for too long or suddenly standing up after sitting or lying down and results into a fainting episode or dizziness. Other heat related conditions are heat rashes, cramps and heat exhaustion. Heatstroke is the illness we want to avoid because in extreme cases, it can be fatal.

Excessive heat exposure can also affect work productivity and the economy by influencing our mood.

Lee says that tasks get completed quicker when temperatures are cooler than they are warmer.

"If you conduct an experiment where you get workers to build a skyscraper, you will find that in cooler conditions, they will finish the job faster as compared to [hotter] conditions [like] in Singapore," shared Lee.

Extreme heat can also contribute to more accidents, impatience on the road, mental illnesses, suicides, and forms of aggression.

Best practices for dealing with warmer temperatures

So, what can we do to beat the heat? While hydration is crucial, it's not the only solution, says Lee.

"Hydration is important but we cannot depend on it alone to beat the heat," according to Lee whose work with personnel in medical tents allowed him to witness several soldiers suffering from over hydration.

Lee emphasises the importance of allowing your body temperature to recover while drinking water at rest.

"Most guidelines would advise you to drink water, besides hydration, it is the rest time while drinking water that allows your body temperature to recover," he said.

Here are some practical tips to beat the heat:

  • Stay fit to heatproof your body against warmer temperatures

  • Engage in outdoor physical activities to acclimatise to the heat

  • Cool yourself down whenever necessary if you want to prolong physical activity

  • Incorporate more rest, even when you feel fresh, instead of waiting until you reach your threshold or limit

  • For those who are not exerting but feel thermally uncomfortable due to the heat, personalised cooling devices like fans or neck cooling collars can be used

For fitness enthusiasts, Lee recommends using physiological strategies to adapt our behaviour to heat.

This includes aerobic conditioning to increase your threshold and ability to handle the heat for a longer time. Doing so would train the heart and lungs to pump blood more efficiently, allowing your muscles and organs receive more oxygen, preventing heat injuries.

Acclimatisation should follow next, which is getting used to the heat to build our strength and ability to handle warmer temperatures that affect our body temperature.

Innovative cooling ideas

In referencing the mobile cooling tents deployed in Hanoi for residents to walk in to keep cool, Lee recommends setting up "cooling shelters" in HDB blocks for people to gather. Fans, cold tea or towels could also be provided for visitors to cool off.

Considering the vulnerability of older individuals in our aging population, it's crucial to take actions to protect themselves against the heat.

(Update: Article edited to add more details and context throughout.)

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