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Should We Exercise Outside When the Air is Smoky?

September 24, 2020

Should We Exercise Outside When the Air is Smoky?

The out of control wildfires that are devastating California and parts of the Northwest are producing dangerous smoke and strange haze not only there but across the country as well.

I've woken up to the smell of smoke on the East Coast and have seen high altitude haze, so I know this is a big deal. But as a runner who likes to keep to a schedule, it begs the question: Should I be running outside?

It Depends

It depends on how susceptible you are to various levels of air quality and how much risk you want to take inhaling the dangerous particles found in smoke.

Inhaling large volumes of wildfire smoke can inflame lungs and may be more toxic than standard urban air pollution. Smoke particulates can activate inflammatory cells in the lungs while hindering other cells that can lessen the inflammatory response later. And, these particulates can flow to the blood stream and affect how our blood vessels dilate and contract which can affect blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.

This is a chart from the EPA that shows various air quality levels.

Screen Shot 2020-09-24 at 4.00.31 PM

As long as you're not a part of the "sensitive" group or elderly or a child, orange may be limit that is safe to exercise outdoors. But, definitely avoid days that are red, purple, or maroon.

What If I Go Slow?

You may think that taking an easy jog on a poor air quality day may not be as taxing to the lungs, but that may not be true. There is actually no evidence that, higher-intensity exercise is more harmful than lower-intensity exercise. However, during those orange days, try to keep it to a 30-60 minute range.

What If I Wear a Mask?

The only proven mask to filter out certain particles is the N95 respirator mask. However, you need to wear it properly by making sure it fits tightly around your face, which may not make for a pleasant running experience. Also, it will do little to protect against harmful gases in the smoke, such as carbon monoxide.

N95 masks are still in short supply because of the ongoing pandemic and should be saved for our emergency workers. Other face coverings may help lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus to others but don't provide protection against wildfire pollutants.

There's Always Indoors

If you have your home gym set up with a Landice treadmill, bike or elliptical, hop right on! But, on those bad smoke days you still need to take precautions. Even though you may be reducing the pollutants by half, it depends on how leaky your home is.

Tightly closed windows, an air-conditioner on “recirculation mode” and, an air purifier with HEPA filter can help reduce the bad pollutants. But, it also goes contrary to the coronavirus protocols of letting air flow in, especially when you're around other people.

So, if need be, skipping a day of exercise to save your lungs may be a better choice.