The Air You Breathe
A key component of a healthy lifestyle is regular aerobic exercise.
But when exercise is combined with air pollution, it can actually be doing more harm than good to your body. Over time, exposure to air pollutants from car and factory emissions can cause a variety of health problems. As a result, athletes are increasingly concerned about over-exposure to the increasing amounts of smog in their communities.
And for good reason.
Exercise and exertion in bad air increases your exposure to the harmful airborne particles spewed out by trucks, buses, cars, and local factories. During aerobic activity, you breathe deeper to fill your lungs and inhale more air than normal breathing. As a result, it is estimated that athletes breathe in 10 to 20 times the amount of air with each breath as sedentary people do.
In addition, you often breathe through your mouth instead of your nose when exercising. Unfortunately for mouth-breathing exercises, the nose is responsible for filtering harmful pollution particles in the air. When you bypass the nose’s filters, these particles enter the lungs, where they settle and cause irritation and inflammation. Other particles are so tiny they can even enter the bloodstream – something that is never good.
– R. Buckminster Fuller
A Bad Combination
Ugly as air pollution may be in the air around you, it is also associated with a long list of potential health problems, including the following:
- damage to lung airways
- lungs having to work harder and suffering inflammation
- increased risk of developing asthma
- worsening of current asthma
- increased risk of lung cancer
- increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and heart attack
More studies are needed to determine how much air pollution exposure is dangerous and how much exposure is necessary to be dangerous for exercisers and non-exercisers.
Limit the Effects
Before heading outdoors to exercise, check the air quality of your community. Then time your outdoor workouts accordingly. You can often find out about the air quality in your community by checking local newspapers, the Internet, or local television stations. In the event the air quality is especially poor, a government agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency often sends out alerts.
Air quality is categorized into four types. “Good” or “Moderate” is when the air is clearest and cleanest. These days are great to work out outside. Next is “USG,” which stands for unhealthy for sensitive groups. On these days, it is safe to exercise outdoors if you’re healthy, but if you have asthma or pulmonary disease, it’s best to stay inside. The third category is “Unhealthy.” If you must exercise outdoors, do so in the morning while smog levels are lowest. If the air quality has stayed in the red for a few days, keep your exercise routine indoors.
The fourth category of air quality is “Very Unhealthy or Hazardous.” Any time the air hits this level, do not exercise outside – even if you’ve spent the last few days dreaming of an outdoor run.
You should also avoid high-pollution areas and times. At rush hour and within 50 feet of roads, smog levels are at their highest. In addition, urban areas and outdoor smoking sections contain high levels of air pollution.
And remember that just because the air is bad doesn’t mean you can’t exercise (unless the doctor has told you otherwise). Taking a day off here and there won’t hurt, but don’t make it a habit. On days with poor air quality, vary your exercise routine by working out indoors. After you finish lifting weights in the gym, hop on the treadmill and leave the trail running for another day.