TAMPA — By 9 a.m. Tuesday, the temperature had already reached 90 degrees. About 80 sweaty kids at the University of Tampa's Spartan Baseball Camp were hitting in the batting cages, pitching in the bullpen, fielding grounders on the infield dirt and leaping for fly balls in the outfield.
But all activity halted at 9:30 when the coaches signaled the first water break of the day. Every kid peeled off for water or Gatorade before getting back in the game.
"We always err on the side of caution with that," camp director Sam Militello said. "When it gets hotter, we're going to give them longer breaks. If we see a kid who is getting flush, we'll sit him down to cool off."
As the Tampa Bay area experiences near-record highs and heat indexes, experts say if you're going to exercise outdoors, frequent water breaks are among several precautions that must be taken.
That goes for kids at all-day camps like Militello's, and grownups who exercise on their lunch hours.
The key, they say, is preparation. People usually need seven to 10 exercise or training sessions outside to safely acclimate to summer conditions, says Dr. Eric Coris, a physician and associate professor at the University of South Florida.
That advice is echoed by the National Athletic Trainers' Association in new guidelines it issued this month for secondary school sports, which recommend a 14-day acclimation period for preseason practices. The guidelines also include limits on the popular twice-daily workouts for high school football.
The recommendations and guidelines are testament to the dangers that extreme heat poses, particularly to young athletes.
Nationwide last year, four high school football players and two college football players died of heat stroke. Locally, Jamell Johnson, 11, who played in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, died in 2006 of heat stroke.
But Coris, a member of the sports medicine advisory committee of the Florida High School Athletic Association, said the heat isn't just an issue for competitive athletes.
"The vast majority of people who die during a heat wave are the very young, the very old or the disabled," Coris said. "These are people who either can't maintain their hydration status or they can't get themselves into an environment where they can cool off."
Though heat-related death and illness are preventable, many people succumb each year to extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1979 to 2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States.
Coris and other experts say it's especially important to drink plenty of fluids and to be aware of the warning signs of heat stroke: cramping, fatigue, headache, light-headedness and dizziness.
"The biggest thing to watch for is any mental status changes — changes in the way that they're behaving," Coris said. "If someone exercising in the heat starts to get confused, generally that's heat stroke until proven otherwise."
At the Spartan baseball camp, Militello said he and his staff keep the participants, ages 5 to 14, busy throughout the day. They also take frequent water breaks and have lunch indoors. Campers spend an hour each day in the swimming pool.
Militello, who has run the Spartan camp for nine years, said it has never had a camper succumb to heat illness.
During one of the morning breaks Tuesday, 10-year-old Rhett Broz of Tampa walked over to his father, Jeff, who had a blue cooler packed with a day's worth of nourishment.
"I've been eating a lot of pineapple, blueberries and drinking lots of water," said Rhett, an incoming fifth-grader at St. Lawrence Catholic School in Tampa. "We get pretty tired at the end of the day."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.
Tips for young athletes
Dr. Eric Coris of the University of South Florida offers these tips to keep kids safe in hot conditions.
PREPARE: Most people need seven to 10 sessions of exercising or training outdoors to properly acclimate. It also helps to be in shape to begin with.
HYDRATE: Be aware that children aren't as aware of their thirst as adults and won't tend to drink as much on their own. Coaches and parents need to encourage kids to take fluids. Coris suggests kids drink 20 ounces before they go to a sports camp, then 8 to 10 ounces every 15 minutes while participating. He also recommends weighing your children before they head out to camp and again when they come home each day. Children should drink 20 ounces for every pound of weight they've lost so they can get back to their baseline before the next day.
WATCH FOR SIGNS: Common symptoms of heat exhaustion include cramping, fatigue, headache, light-headedness and dizziness. Some people will experience heat sensations, including a prickly heat on their neck and shoulders. Watch for changes in behavior. "If someone exercising in the heat starts to get confused, generally that's heat stroke until proven otherwise," Coris said.