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Air Pollution and Outdoor Exercise
Can air pollution erase the benefits of outdoor exercise?

Can air pollution harm your outdoor workout?
Can air pollution harm your outdoor workout?

Running outside is a great way to get cardio exercise. What could be better than taking in the sights, sounds and fresh air from an outdoor run? Unfortunately the air may not be as fresh as everyone thinks.

People who suffer from allergies have learned to stay inside when pollen levels are high. It's also good to avoid being outside when the air is filled with smoke from wildfires, or during smog alerts. But scientists started to wonder if everyday pollution, like the exhaust from cars and trucks, could harm people exercising outside.

The reason for the concern is because someone exercising vigorously, can take in 10 to 20 times more air than someone casually walking. Exercisers also tend to breathe deeper, creating far more exposure to harmful pollutants.

So researchers in Denmark put together a study where they tracked 57,053 people over twenty years. They wanted to see how much harm, traffic-related air pollution would cause. Would air pollution erase the benefits of outdoor exercise?

Outdoor exercise won. It turns out, even exercising outside in a large city like Copenhagen, with higher levels of air pollution, was better than not exercising. Physical activities like cycling, gardening and participation in sports lowered the overall risk of death by 16 to 22%. That reduction happened no matter what the traffic-related air pollution levels were at the participant's homes.

In a 2012 study, researchers at the University of Sao Paulo School of Medicine, exposed two groups of mice to diesel exhaust particles for 5 weeks. The mice that didn't exercise, showed high levels of lung inflammation and oxidative stress. That was expected. But the mice that exercised 5 days a week, suffered almost no negative effects.

The act of exercising produces powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant responses in our bodies that accumulate over time. Getting and staying in shape provides protection against the exposure to pollutants.

For extra protection, there are a few simple things you can do to reduce your exposure. The keys are WHEN and WHERE you exercise outdoors.


Try to get out in the early morning, when smog levels tend to be at their lowest. If you live in a hot climate, early mornings and evenings are good times to avoid midday heat.


Avoid roads with heavy traffic and plan on taking the scenic route. Pollution that cars spit out can travel up to 1/3 of a mile away. That doesn't mean you have to head for the country. Just moving as little as one block away from busy thoroughfares can dramatically reduce the amount of air pollution you're exposed to.

On days when pollution levels are especially high, move your workouts inside. Find malls that open for walking and running or use cardio equipment at your local gym. If you need more motivation, use it as an excuse to try some fitness classes.

Reduce your personal exposure when working outside your house. Get rid of gasoline-powered lawn and yard equipment like lawnmowers, leaf blowers or snow blowers. Switch to hand-powered tools for more exercise or use electric equipment. Older two-stroke engines often have no pollution control devices and can foul the air even more than cars.

Get More Information

Check air pollution forecasts for your local area before you head out. The United States government provides a free air quality report at Air Now. You can find them at: https://airnow.gov/Every day the Air Quality Index (AQI) tells you how clean or polluted your outdoor air is, along with associated health effects that may be of concern. The AQI translates air quality data into numbers and colors that help people understand when to take action to protect their health.”

You can access the Air Now data several ways, from their website, through EnviroFlash email alerts, using their free AirNow app for Iphones and Android as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

BreezeoMeter is another website that offers detailed reports, but it extends to countries around the world. They're online at: https://breezometer.com. They provide accurate information down to 500 meters or 0.3 miles.

There's also the World Air Quality Index Report. They provide air quality information from more than 10,000 monitoring stations around the world. You can find them online at: https://waqi.info/

Don't avoid exercising outside, just be smart in how you approach it. Everyone should enjoy the great outdoors.

For more information, you can read PDF versions of the two studies mentioned in this article at the links below.

Effects of Leisure‐Time and Transport‐Related Physical Activities on the Risk of Incident and Recurrent Myocardial Infarction and Interaction With Traffic‐Related Air Pollution: A Cohort Study

Anti-inflammatory effects of aerobic exercise in mice exposed to air pollution.

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