Outdoor Exercises in Smoky Air: Are We Playing With Fire?

August 21, 2023
3 mins read
Outdoor Exercises in Smoky Air: Are We Playing With Fire?
© Photo: Standret
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An ominous shadow of smoke hovers in the sky, and the smell of burning wood lingers in your nostrils. A wildfire, miles away, permeates the atmosphere with an ominous smoky pallor. You gaze out the window, tightening your grip on your running shoes, pondering the question – should you, or should you not, venture outside for your outdoor exercises?

A Closer Look at Air Quality

The perceived wisdom amongst health and fitness experts on this issue revolves around the color-coded air quality index (AQI). The AQI provides hourly updates on air quality, determined by Zip code. A color scale or numerical value—ranging from 0 to 500—can give you a clear view of the situation outside. The scale fluctuates from green (good) to maroon (hazardous), with an orange rating signifying air that may be “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” such as those with respiratory ailments, children, or the elderly.

When the AQI falls into the orange zone, experts assert that outdoor exercise isn’t a cause for concern for most people, barring those in the sensitive groups. The key to remember, however, is the potential smell of smoke permeating your clothes and hair post-exercise, a gentle reminder of the present circumstances.

Healthy individuals will likely find that the health benefits of physical activity outweigh the health risks of air pollution at this level,” a recent statement from a coalition of global health bodies, including the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine, states.


Exercise with Caution as Smoke Intensifies

However, as the smoke intensifies and the AQI shifts towards red (unhealthy), purple (very unhealthy), or maroon (hazardous), it’s a clear indication to limit, or entirely skip, outdoor exercises. Michael Koehle, a sports physiology expert from the University of British Columbia and a contributor to the global health body’s position statement, confirms that he would shift his exercise regimen indoors if the air quality turned red.

Understanding the Risks: What You Inhale Matters

Wildfire smoke is a noxious cocktail of different gasses and particles, including incredibly tiny microparticles. Our noses act as a natural filter for many pollutants. However, intense exercise typically involves open-mouth breathing, which may allow more pollutants into our bodies.

Unfortunately, common masks, such as cloth or surgical masks, aren’t designed to filter these tiny particles. Tighter-fitting N95 masks offer greater protection, but using them for intense exercise is practically challenging, according to James Hull, a sports pulmonologist with the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health in London. He warns of the potential danger of overconfidence while wearing masks that may not provide adequate protection.

Outdoor Exercises in Smoky Air: Are We Playing With Fire?
© Photo: Senivpetro

Make the Best of It: Exercising Smart

Should the AQI allow for it, an outdoor exercices of about 30 to 60 minutes seems “reasonable,” according to Koehle. Nevertheless, listen to your body and heed any signs of chest tightness or discomfort. Hull supports this sentiment and suggests that shorter high-intensity exercise bouts are less harmful than longer low-intensity ones.

Interestingly, a 2014 study involving cyclists found that participants experienced more breathing difficulties during slower rides than during intense pedaling. Though the reasons behind this finding aren’t entirely clear, one implication is clear: If smoke lingers in the air, it’s more advisable to keep workouts short and intense than long and slow

Tips for Timing

Exercise timing also plays a crucial role in minimizing exposure to pollutants. According to Koehle, particulate concentrations are generally worse at night and pre-dawn. Levels begin to lessen after sunrise when the smoke starts to lift. Thus, consider adjusting your schedule to exercise after sunrise.

Shifting Indoors: A Safe Haven?

Indoor exercise comes with its own set of considerations. Particulate levels inside, like in a gym or your living room, can be about 50% lower than outside if windows and doors are tightly closed. Remember to turn on the air conditioner in recirculation mode and consider using an air purifier with a HEPA filter for extra safety.

Children’s Safety First

When it comes to children, particular care must be taken. A guide by the Environmental Protection Agency offers useful advice on how to handle air quality alerts. Children with asthma must keep their medications handy, as smoke may trigger an episode. As the air quality enters the red zone, outdoor activities should be limited, and if it moves into the purple zone, indoor exercises with tightly closed windows and doors are recommended.

As climate change causes an increase in wildfire events globally, we must all be aware of the potential health risks posed by exercising in smoky conditions. By understanding the air quality index, knowing when to move indoors, adjusting our exercise intensity, and considering the time of day, we can maintain our fitness levels while minimizing exposure to air pollutants. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, this comprehensive understanding could guide our decision-making process when smoke invades the air.

Click on this link to read this article in French version

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