Exercising In Air Pollution: Because You Have to Inhale

Photo by wili hybrid via Flickr

The marathon was still six months off, but Jacob was pretty excited.  He had always been a runner, but he had never had the time to commit to training for a full marathon before.  He had all the right gear.  Everything from the shoes and special socks to the belt to hold his water bottles.  He was on track with his training plan and everything was going his way.  He had even found a better job in Los Angeles that left him more time to run. It had meant moving from Seattle, but hey no problem, right? Less rain to run in.  But, during his first midday run in L.A., he had difficulty breathing halfway through and had to stop.  It had to be the smog, he thought.  He’d never had problems after running for less than a half hour before.

Jacob’s problem isn’t uncommon.  Many people live in areas with polluted air, which makes it harder to exercise outdoors.  When they go out for a long run or bicycle ride they might exhibit pollution related symptoms such as increased shortness of breath, headaches, throat irritation, coughing and tightness of the chest.  But what causes those problems and how can we minimize them?

How does pollution affect exercise?
Polluted air can contain a variety of hazardous gases, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and ozone.  It can also be full of particulate matter, such as diesel soot, fly ash, wood smoke, sulfate aerosols, lead and arsenic, which we see as smog.

When we exercise outdoors, we breathe faster, more deeply and usually through our mouths, bypassing the nose (which helps to filter out water soluble compounds, such as sulfur dioxide).  This increases the adverse effects of the air pollution on our respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

How can I minimize the effects of air pollution?
While many people live and work in urban and suburban areas with air pollution, there are precautions that they can take to minimize the affects of pollution when exercising.

  1. Workout in the early morning: This is the time of day when the sun is least intense and there is the least pollution in the air.  The second best time to workout outdoors is after sunset, but it still may not be safe.  Ozone, which is a colorless gas that is a very dangerous component of smog, is formed when sunlight interacts with car and industrial emissions.  And it’s still very much present soon after sunset.
  2. Choose areas with light traffic: Try not to workout during rush hour.  However, if you have to workout during that time, pick areas such as parks or open areas with light traffic where there is wind to help disperse the pollutants.  That way you won’t breathe as many fumes.
  3. Exercise indoors: If the air pollution is particularly bad on a given day, the safest thing to do is exercise indoors.  So, head to a gym.

These are all recommendations for the average person.  If you have heart disease, allergies, asthma or another medical condition and live in a place with air pollution, definitely talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

So, while many people do not have the luxury to move to get away from air pollution, they can choose when and where they exercise.  So, if you live in a polluted area and don’t want to suffer from pollution related health issues, schedule your strenuous outdoor exercises appropriately and stay indoors on bad air days.

Comments (2)

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  1. I was just wondering about this as I coughed my way through exhaust while running tonight. Because I travel a lot for work, I don’t always have access to a gym. But I can always bring my shoes and run. So early mornings it is for me.

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