According to AirNow.gov the Pittsburgh region’s Air Quality Index is forecast to be “Unsafe for Sensitive Groups” (Orange) this week.
That means “active children and adults, and people with lung disease, such as asthma, should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.”
Almost everyone exercises daily. Whether it’s a relaxing walk after dinner, a run in the morning before work, exploring your community in a wheelchair, a bike ride on the weekend or even walking up stairs. It’s healthy right? Well, it’s definitely healthy to be active but in locations with poor air quality, you might be increasing your risk of danger by exercising on poor air quality days. Don’t get us wrong, it is very healthy to exercise and should still be done. But on days with poor air quality, there are other ways to exercise than outside.
Exercising outdoors puts individuals at an higher risk of being affected by poor air quality because they experience increased exposure to polluted air. When people compete or practice they take in up to 20 times more air than a person at rest. This is concerning for three reasons. The first is that they are taking in higher levels of pollutants than an individual at rest. The second concern is a larger amount of air is inhaled through the mouth instead of the nose. The nose has a natural ventilation system which filters out some particles and when air is inhaled through the mouth it bypasses that system. The third concern is during exercise, particles are inhaled more deeply and find their way into the bloodstream.
One of the leading causes of particulate matter is vehicle exhaust. Exercising besides cars and buses on major roadways only make it worse. The exhaust from vehicles contain high levels of carbon monoxide, which interferes with the body’s ability to transport oxygen using red blood cells. If enough carbon monoxide is inhaled, it can lead to impairment of muscular coordination and perception. Other symptoms associated with automobile exhaust include irritation of the throat and lungs, tightening of the chest and an increased risk of respiratory infections.
Another pollutant which is often found in the air is ground level ozone pollution (smog), which is made up of VOCs and NOX. VOCs are volatile organic compounds and includes things such as benzene and formaldehyde. NOX are nitrogen oxides. Both NOX and VOCs are carcinogens which means they are known to cause cancer.
Outdoor air pollution is particularly concerning to athletes because it does not just have long term health effects but can also affect performance. In a 2010 study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal it was found that every increase of 10 mg of PM10 air pollution marathon performance decrease 1.4%. The study found that even where air pollution levels are at a level which the EPA deems healthy the particles in the air can still negatively affect performance.
As scary as this all sounds, there are easy steps to avoid and prevent the increased risk from the pollution. The easiest solution is to exercise indoors during days with poor air quality. Find a treadmill, a gym, an indoor track, anything to allow you to stay inside but still workout. If you desperately want to exercise outdoors, wait until the afternoon because of inversions. Inversions trap pollution near the ground and typically occur during the night but the effects can still linger in the morning. Other ways to avoid high levels of pollution include finding areas with less traffic such as side streets or bike paths. Avoid walking or bike paths with industrial plants along the way. Finally, for those concerned with exercising outdoors, choosing to speak up and acting on the issue rather than abandoning exercise altogether will have the biggest impact.