Breath Easy - Air Pollution and Exercise

How air pollution affects your outdoor exercise and what you can do about it.

Air pollution is everywhere. It’s worse in some areas of the world but it’s pretty much everywhere. The level of pollution and the type of pollution varies depending on the location. When pollution is really bad, you can see it in the air (i.e. smog) or smell it when you step outside (i.e. car exhaust).

Typical sources of air pollution according to mayoclinic.org are the obvious ones like traffic, power plants, and factories. 

Other sources are:

1. Wind blown dust which can travel for many, many miles so a source of pollution that you think is too far away may be affecting you without you realizing it. 

2. Burning wood which causes a mixture of gases and particles in the smoke that can be toxic. 

3. Construction can cause a variety of types of air pollution. That new neighborhood going up nearby might be beautiful but the construction is wreaking havoc on the air. Machinery exhaust, dust particles from waste material, and various chemicals used in the construction process can all contribute to surrounding pollution. 

4. Agriculture and farming operations can cause similar pollution with machinery exhaust and chemicals.   

Children, elderly and those with health conditions such as asthma, heart disease or lung disease are more affected by air pollution and should take extra precautions if air pollution is particularly high.

Pollution is bad anytime but in combination with exercise, it increases the risk of health problems. This is because when you’re exercising, heavier breathing causes you to inhale more air. The more air you inhale, the more pollution you’re getting with each breath.

Some common problems associated with pollution are:

  • Headaches
  • Eyes/nose/throat irritation
  • Increased risk of asthma development
  • Increased risk of heart attacks/strokes

All of this makes it sound like we should hunker down inside and never venture out again, right? What a mess! But there is good news. Being in nature and getting some sunlight has plenty of research-backed benefits. Research also indicates the long term benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of pollution in most cases. Not extremes, of course, but getting a workout outside is usually better than not exercising at all. A Danish study in 2015 concluded that in general, “exposure to high levels of traffic related air pollution did not modify associations, indicating beneficial effects of physical activity on mortality.”  

There are things you can do to mitigate the effects of air pollution when you want or need to exercise outside. This list is paraphrased from mayoclinic.org.

  1. Time of day. Early morning workouts are best for avoiding the highest levels of air pollution. If you can exercise before traffic starts and before businesses get started for the day, that will help. Evenings would be the next best choice. Exercising during rush hour or at midday around roads can elevate the risk of inhaling pollution.
  2. Location. Avoid exercising near heavily trafficked roads, industrial areas and outdoor smoking areas. Parks and trails are your best option if possible because they usually have less general pollution. Exercising indoors occasionally to limit your daily exposure can be helpful and doesn’t have to be all the time.
  3. Monitor air pollution levels. Check local news and weather reports for air quality alerts and adjust your workout plan as needed. The EPA’s airnow.gov website will give you current air quality readings for your area.
  4. Shorter workouts. If you must exercise outside and you’re concerned about air quality, a short, more intense workout is better than a longer one of more moderate intensity. A shorter workout will limit your exposure.

Take these practical steps to minimize your air pollution exposure but don’t avoid exercise entirely unless the pollution is extreme or you have a health condition that could be exacerbated by pollution. Be practical, minimize risk, but exercise on!