Let’s start with a couple givens: Working out is good for your health, and air pollution is bad for your health. What we may not realize, however, is that exercise can make the effects of pollutant exposure worse. At rest, the average adults takes 15-to-20 breaths per minute, but during exercise that number can reach as high as 50 breaths per minute, meaning we’re taking in more air (and more pollutants).
Staying fit while protecting your health is a balancing act no matter what, but exercising in the summer comes with its own set of challenges. Hotter air can help pollutants linger and build up during the day, making outdoor workouts tough to muster. At the same time, moving indoors into climate-controlled gyms can up pollutant exposure, too.
The risks threaten to outweigh the rewards: Research has linked low air quality to health issues including asthma, high blood pressure, and cognitive impairment, among other conditions. Studies have even connected high pollution levels to decreases in athletic performance. A recent German study, for example, found that soccer players are less “productive” (i.e. that they make fewer passes) when particulate matter levels are high.
But skipping the workout altogether isn’t the answer. Here’s how to master what might seem like a no-win scenario.
Mind the Air Meter
Plan your workout a day in advance using the air quality forecast at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) airnow.gov tracker. For generally healthy individuals, if readings reach the “Code Red” or “unhealthy” range, it’s best to remain indoors. Asthma sufferers, the elderly, and other at-risk groups should forego outdoor activity when the the air quality reading hits the orange “unhealthy for sensitive groups” level.
Be a Morning Person
Air quality generally takes a nosedive in the summer, when prolonged heat and sunlight make the air stagnant. Pollutants tend to hang out and build up as the day wears on. That’s why the EPA recommends people limit their outdoor activities to early mornings, before ozone and other pollutants accumulate. Do your best to avoid working out during rush hour, when pollution levels spike, and steer clear of major roadways whenever possible.
Give Your Gym the Sniff Test
Expecting a gym to smell spring-time fresh is a tall order, but researchers have warned that certain odors might indicate air-quality trouble. A 2014 study of European gyms published in the journal Building and Environment found levels of airborne dust, formaldehyde, and carbon dioxide in excess of what’s considered healthy. A stale or chemical smell might indicate a poorly ventilated space, researcher Carl Ramon told The New York Times; gym-goers should talk to the manager about assessing the air quality, checking ventilation, and choosing natural cleaning products.
Understand the Value of Exercise
Though experts agree that going for a jog on “red alert” days or in high-pollution centers like Delhi or Beijing isn’t the best plan, exercising outdoors in less- or moderately-polluted areas may not be so bad. A 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that working out may help negate the negative impact of pollution. Of the 52.000 study participants, those who exercised regularly experienced greater longevity than those who didn’t, despite their air pollution exposure.
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