You might not be able to solve the air-pollution problem, but there are things you can do before your next workout to help you breathe easier.

By Macaela Mackenzie
March 14, 2018
Photo: gruizza / Getty Images

Tracking your activity in one way or another is pretty much a given these days. You track your miles, your pace, your burned calories, your heart rate-but there's one element of your workout you're probably not paying attention to: air quality.

"There are a lot of effects of air quality on health, and we're just beginning to touch on it," says Louis DePalo, M.D., professor of pulmonary medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. For example, a 2015 study found that air pollution was linked to higher anxiety levels in women. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), poor air quality is connected to a higher rate of death from related diseases.

Another study found that long-term exposure to traffic-related pollution, such as carbon monoxide from car emissions, may lead to chronic lung issues. It can also lead to the development of asthma, says Dr. DePalo. "We're seeing many more asthmatic symptoms, which are not related to typical allergies," he says. Instead, "it's chronic irritation" related to the effects of air pollution.

For people who already have asthma or other lung diseases, working out in an area with poor air quality can be an even bigger deal. People with asthma are going to have a much higher reaction to something that would typically be a low-level irritant, says Dr. DePalo.

Then there are the cardiovascular problems caused by smog. "Inhalation of these particles actually leads to blood vessel inflammation and could lead to higher incidence of heart attack and stroke," says Dr. DePalo. In fact, WHO recently estimated that 72 percent of the air pollution-related deaths in 2012 were tied to heart disease and stroke.

Basically, exercising where there's poor air quality-think running near a busy street versus in a park-can negatively impact your health.

How Air Quality Is Messing with Your Fitness

Unless you're cycling alongside a busy highway and directly breathing in all that exhaust, you probably won't immediately notice the effects of poor air quality, says Dr. DePalo. But that doesn't mean the effects aren't there. A study published in 2010 found female marathon finishers who ran in areas with pollution had slower finishing times on average than women who ran in areas where the air was cleaner.

Exercising in an area with poor air quality might even cancel out many of the health benefits of your workout, according to the findings of a 2017 study published in The Lancet. When researchers compared the heart and lung health of two groups of people-one group spent two hours walking in a park and the other spent the same amount of time walking along a busy street-they found that poor air quality drastically reduced the exercise-induced positive effects on lung capacity, blood flow, blood pressure, and heart rate.

How You Can Breathe Healthier

The good news is, you can control air quality more than you might think-even if you live in a big city.

"The first thing you can do is know when to exercise," says Dr. DePalo. Air quality gets worse as the temperature rises, so working out in the early morning or evening can help you avoid the negative effects of the midday heat, he says. Consider planning your workouts for better breathing using an app such as Plume Air Report, which monitors real-time air quality in your city. The app can not only share the current air quality but can also predict what you could be breathing in during your bike commute home later.

Now that you know when to workout, you can start to consider where to workout, too. And you'll be surprised to learn that air quality varies significantly even from block to block. "A few blocks in either direction of a thoroughfare shows a dramatic change in particulate matter," says Dr. DePalo. So with the right air knowledge, you could literally map your run according to the healthiest air in your hood. To make tracking that kind of air quality data as easy as tracking your steps, the company behind the Plume Air Report is working on a personal air quality tracker. Flow is a wearable (sort of like a keychain) that will measure the local air quality in real time down to street-level, so you can map your run, walk, or bike route to avoid dirty air.

Right now, the best thing you can do is avoid working out or walking near busy streets when you can, says Dr. DePalo. "Just moving a few blocks over may make a difference in terms of the air quality," he says. Consider this your excuse for taking the scenic route.