How Pollution Affects Your Workout

All it takes is a breezy, sun-drenched day to entice most fitness buffs away from the gym and into the great outdoors for a workout. But while your intention may be to take advantage of the fresh air, pick the wrong time of day or place to exercise and you may find yourself coughing and wheezing instead.

"In hot summer months, levels of pollutants such as ozone and soot rise," says Frank Adams, M.D., assistant professor of pulmonary disease at the New York University School of Medicine. "Pollutants give you a kind of sunburn on your throat, lungs and bronchial lining that can inflame them and trigger eye irritation, shortness of breath, wheezing, a dry cough or scratchy throat." Those with asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema are at higher risk and can experience chest tightening and lightheadedness.

You don't have to banish outdoor cycling, running or tennis-ball whacking, though. A little planning can go a long way in protecting your body from pollution's harm. Follow these six simple tips from the medical experts to smog-proof your workout.

  1. Check the Air Quality Index: Before lacing up your sneaks, it's key to make sure that the air is safe, says Adams. Go to and scroll down to select your city and state. You'll see a color assigned to your area letting you know the current air-quality level from green (good) to burgundy (hazardous).
  1. Plan a healthier route: "While vigorously exercising, you're breathing in about 5 to 10 times more air," says Ed Avol, M.S., professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, "and because you're breathing harder and air is moving faster, not only oxygen but also the pollutants floating in the air reach deeper into your lungs." Avoid cycling, running and skating on heavily trafficked roads where exhaust fumes are at highest levels.

  2. Schedule for safety: Ground-level ozone forms when heat and sunlight react chemically with vehicle emissions, says Adams, with more heat equaling more ozone. Steer clear of outdoor exercise during peak ozone-generating hours-from 11a.m. to 3p.m.
  3. Shorten your exercise session: If you normally cycle for an hour, cut back to 45 minutes. If you run for 45 minutes, trim it down to 30. Instead of logging longer workouts a few times a week do shorter bursts of exercise more often to limit the amount of time you're exposed to pollutants each time you work out.
  1. Ease the pace: When you breathe in through your nostrils, you're taking advantage of your body's natural air filter. The cilia in your nose trap some harmful particles and prevent them from reaching your lungs. But because the small, sharp turns of the nasal passages offer resistance to airflow, says Avol, the natural tendency for exercisers is to breathe through the mouth. Don't aim to beat your best time when the air is smoggy. Slow your speed to a light jog or ride and try to breathe through your nose for at least part of your workout.
  2. Work out indoors: If air quality reaches risky levels or if you have asthma, bronchitis or emphysema, you may be better off working out in the air-conditioned indoors.
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