How to Reduce Sun Exposure When Exercising Outside

Enjoy the Outdoors Safely

If you regularly shrug off sunscreen and head outside for a quick jog or sweaty boot camp, you're flirting with disaster. Unprotected sun exposure and its aftermath (sunburns and, often, skin cancer) can wreak havoc on your body's largest organ, your skin.

In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated each year, and between 40 and 50 percent of the population will have had basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma by their 65th birthdays. In a final, significant stat, the Foundation notes that roughly 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun, while an estimated 87 percent of melanoma skin cancers can be traced to the same source.

So, yeah, that quick jog without sunscreen really isn't a good idea.

Sadly, I'm practically the poster child for these statistics. After an adolescence filled with outdoor sports and lifeguarding, often during peak sun hours, and with little regard for sunscreen or other protection, I had my first basal cell carcinoma treated at age 25, and my second at age 30.

Hearing about people's skin cancer horror stories and learning about the scary statistics may make you want to spend the rest of your life inside, but there's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's perfectly possible to enjoy a life filled with outdoor activity, including daytime runs, camping trips, beach yoga, and long hikes, without incurring detrimental skin damage. You just need to know how to help reduce sun exposure when exercising outside.

Never Forget Your SPF

Making their way up the trail

Sunscreen—buy it, keep extra tubes of it in your purse, car, and gym bag, and actually use it before you head outside. This is your first line of defense for exposed skin, so don't take it lightly. The American Academy of Dermatology offers these tips for choosing and using sunscreen:

  • Look for full-spectrum, water-resistant brands that protect from UVA and UVB rays.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you head outside, as it takes this long for it to soak in and become sufficiently protective.
  • Use at least an ounce of sunscreen (that's enough to fill a shot glass, folks) to cover your exposed skin. You might be able to get away with less if you limit your skin exposure with long sleeves and pants.
  • Check the expiration dates on your sunscreens. Don't use expired products.
  • Make sure you apply your sunscreen to oft-overlooked places, like your ears, the tops of your feet, and the backs of your legs.
  • Reapply every two hours, or if you're working up a sweat, at least every 80 minutes. Read the instructions on the label to insure you're applying frequently enough.
  • Lotion-up even on cloudy or rainy days—clouds don't stop UV rays from coming through.

Dr. Fayne Frey, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of FryFace, offers one final sunscreen tip specific to athletes, "I recommend beeswax-based sunscreen as they tend not to run into the eyes and cause burning." For instance, Waxhead has a Coconut Oil Sunscreen Stick that provides SPF 30 and is made of only four, certified-organic ingredients, including coconut oil, beeswax, non-nano zinc oxide, and either ​cocoa powder or ​vanilla extract.

Wear UPF Clothing

If applying and re-applying sunscreen feels like a never-ending hassle, then it's time to buddy up to UPF-protective clothing. UPF stands for "ultraviolet protection factor," and it's the apparel-equivalent of sunscreen's SPF.

While all clothing offers some measure of protection from the sun's rays, some fabrics are simply better than others at blocking out radiation. Companies can lab-test their clothing for radiation protection, earning a certified UPF-rating, the highest of which is UPF 50+, which lets in less than 1/50th of the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

Of course, clothing's UPF protection only works for the skin you have covered with the clothes, so you do have to keep applying sunscreen to all exposed skin, but opting for a UPF-certified lightweight hiking pant and long-sleeve top the next time you plan to spend the day outside can go a long way to keeping you safe while reducing the hassle of sunscreen application.

Opt for More Coverage From Head to Toe

It's normal to want to strip down to a sports bra and shorts when the days get hot, but it's a good idea to resist the urge. While it might sound miserable, covering up from head to toe is a winning strategy for reducing sun exposure. A full arsenal of hats, sunglasses, long sleeves, and leggings should become your summer workout staples.

The reality is, today's lightweight technical fabrics are designed for hot weather, offering superior breathability that helps pull moisture away from your skin to keep you cool and dry. It may take some getting used to, but as long as you select the right clothes, exercising in long sleeves and leggings (especially ones with a UPF rating) isn't as bad as you might think.

And if you can't fathom taking a run in anything but shorts and a tank top, do cover up in other ways by throwing on a UPF-rated running hat with a wide brim and a great pair of sunglasses with broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. Or try a long-sleeve top with a pair of shorts, or a pair of leggings with a tank top. The more you can try to stay covered, the better off you'll be.

Avoid Peak Sun Hours

According to Frey, there's one very easy way to reduce sun exposure: Avoid peak sun hours. "Try to limit your outdoor exercise to early morning hours or late afternoon and evening hours when the sun's ultraviolet rays are not as strong," she says. Typically, the sun is strongest between 10 am and 2 pm, but this might vary slightly by region. A good rule of thumb is to abut your workouts to sunrise or sunset. It doesn't hurt that it's typically cooler at these times, too.

Seek Shade

shady run
Guido Mieth/Getty Images

Whenever possible, use shady routes while running, hiking, or biking. Even if some UV rays penetrate the leaf-cover, you're at least limiting exposure. And if you're heading outside for a yoga session or boot camp, look for covered pavilions or shady parks where you can get a reprieve from the sun.

A Word From Verywell

Of course, one of the best parts about exercising outside on a nice day is having the chance to enjoy the sun. No one's suggesting you need to avoid sunlight completely, but rather, you should take proactive steps to reduce UV exposure. Not only will this reduce your chances of skin cancer, but it can also help prevent wrinkles, sun spots, and that not-so-attractive "leathery" appearance sun-damaged skin tends to take on.

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