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air run

5 tips for exercising in polluted areas

Pollution & Exercise: 5 things you need to know

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I’ll start on a personal note: I am a runner! And an avid one at that. As much as I love Beijing and you love London, Delhi, Shanghai or Hong Kong, however, training once a month isn’t really going to get you anywhere. After years of navigating my way around the smog in Beijing, here are a few tips and tricks for keeping healthy whilst exercising in polluted areas. 

To Run

Physical exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle. It reduces the risk of diabetes, stroke, heart attack, stress and respiratory illnesses. Living in polluted areas increases the chance of all the above, making it vital for people living in polluted areas to exercise judiciously. 

Not to Run

During physical exercise, you usually inhale more air and breathe it more deeply into your lungs. Furthermore, you’re more likely to breathe through your mouth, making the polluted air bypass your nasal passage, which normally goes some way to filtering airborne pollution particles.

The Danes say to run

Several studies have shown that it’s still better to work out than to avoid exercise altogether, even when in polluted areas. One such study was conducted by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, in which they followed around 52,061 people over a period of 13 years.

The key assumption at the beginning of the study was that exercising has severe effects on overall health. Study results proved otherwise. The findings, which were reported in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives showed that participants who took part in sports, cycling and gardening during the 13-year period showed a lesser likelihood of dying from any of the illnesses mentioned above. For instance, those who were active in sports showed a 22% less likelihood of dying prematurely.

The researchers concluded that exercise has more benefits even in areas with higher pollution. This is to say that even if air pollution levels are above the WHO safe level of continuous exposure (the impossible to obtain 10), exercising is still better than not exercising. If you live in London, this is fairly good news. If you live in Beijing, this is fairly bad news. Here’s what you can do if “red alert” is part of your vernacular. 

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Smog Rule of Thumb

Based on research from the studies mentioned in this article comes the official Smog Rule of Thumb for exercise:

0 – 60 Enjoy it! This is your time. In fact, do as much as you can whilst you can!

60 –  100 Scale it down. Use these days for recovery runs and cycles.
 
100 – 150 Bring it indoors. Try to use gyms that have air purifiers as much as possible!
 
Above 150 Indoor exercise with air purifiers on.
 
Furthermore, you don’t need to go running in order to get a great cardio workout. To be on the safe side, it’s better to do exercises that do not require very heavy breathing or being outdoors where the pollution is higher. Light calisthenics, yoga, martial arts and indoor sports such as wall-climbing, tennis, badminton and squash, are all great alternatives for running.

Tips for exercising in heavily polluted areas

Whilst using the Smog Rule of Thumb you can incorporate the following into your exercise routine:

1. Exercise in the mornings

Most pollutants are produced during the day, making daytime and evening hours the worst times to exercise. Daytime heat also intensifies pollution concentrations in the air. If like exercising outdoors, try doing so early in the morning.

2. Green areas have cleaner air

Trees and other vegetation release oxygen into the environment, making green areas such as parks more ideal for outside exercising. Plus, there won’t be any cars around, eliminating a whole range of pollutants. 

3. Check daily air quality index

Planning is crucial here. Many apps provide predictions based on wind patterns – use these to plan your runs vs indoor exercise days. 

4. Always wear a mask

You’ll breathe in harder, deeper and faster when exercising, meaning you’ll inhale a larger amount of pollutants than if you were just relaxing. For this reason, whether you are exercising outdoors or indoors, you should wear a pollution mask. 

5. Eat foods rich in antioxidants

Antioxidants help the body to eliminate toxic substances. Foods that are rich in vitamins E & C, such as fruits and green-leafy vegetables are high in antioxidants and should feature in your diet daily. Please read our previous blogs for more.

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