Don't let 'bad air days' stop your outdoor exercise

Most people don't have to give up outdoor exercise on poor air quality daysPoor air quality is a public health issue throughout the world, and we’re even more susceptible to pollutants’ negative health effects while exercising outside. 

“Even people who don’t have chronic lung diseases, such as COPD or asthma, can suffer the effects of poor air quality,” says Jonathan Parsons, MD, director of clinical services for Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine. 

On certain days, especially in the summer, there’s even more pollution in the air. 

When we run or do other cardiovascular exercise outside, we take more, deeper breaths, inhaling even more of that ozone and particulate matter. And because we often breathe through our mouths during exercise, pollution bypasses nasal passages, which normally would help filter the air before reaching our lungs. 

Poor air quality can cause headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation; lung inflammation; chest tightness; and airway inflammation. Those with chronic lung disease are particularly affected. 

But there aren’t many places in the United States, Parsons says, where the benefits of outdoor exercise don’t outweigh the negative effects of the air. 

If you’re healthy, you don’t have to give up your exercise routine on these days, but there are ways to decrease the amount of pollutants you might breathe.

How to minimize air pollution’s health effects

Parsons says working out early in the morning is best.

“Exercise outside before a lot of the materials build up in the atmosphere from people driving to work in their cars,” he says.

Another tactic is to avoid cardiovascular activity near roads with heavy traffic – especially where large trucks typically drive. Instead, try running or biking on a local multi-use path.

The best choice is to track your area’s air quality forecast and exercise inside, when possible, on bad air days. You could opt for the treadmill or a spin class.

“You can’t totally avoid the effects of poor air quality while exercising outside, no matter what approach you take,” Parsons says. “People who are at risk for exercise-induced symptoms – like asthma and COPD – should monitor air quality on a daily basis and try to stay inside on poor air quality days.”

How to identify bad air days 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website and app provide current air quality ratings and forecasts for regions throughout the United States. This information includes ratings for ozone pollution and particulate matter in the air.

To learn more about past air ratings and how the air quality in your region has changed over time, take a look at the American Lung Association’s annual, comprehensive report.

Other tips for bad air days

If you’re driving on one of these days, Parsons recommends setting your vehicle’s air conditioner to “recycle” mode to reduce the amount of pollutants you breathe in the car.

The fumes from mowing your lawn or filling up your car with gasoline can contribute to the poor air quality, so try putting off those chores for a better day or for the evening, when it’s cooler. Reduce the time you spend driving, avoid burning leaves or trash, and reduce or stop use of a fireplace or wood stove.

And if you have a chronic lung disease and have a rescue inhaler, Parsons says, “Keep the inhaler with you – don’t leave it in your car, where you can’t use it.”