Fitness Tips

Is It Bad To Work Out When the Air Quality Is Unhealthy? Here’s What a Pulmonologist Says

Photo: Getty Images/Guido Mieth
With the nice weather, many of us want to head outside to get in our workouts. From changing up the scenery to basking in the sun’s warmth, there are many reasons why exercising outdoors feels so darn good.

But with the pollen and fires in some places (fire season is starting early and coming in strong in the Southwest, for example), is it safe to do activities outside that require heavy breathing?

The answer is yes—you just have to check a few things and take precautions first.

How to exercise outside safely

“If exercising outside is your go-to, you need to be prepared for any type of weather,” says Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pulmonologist at KIDZ Medical Services and certified travel medicine specialist. “When you exercise outdoors, you are at the whim of mother nature.”

Here are some things you can do to take as much control as possible in the uncontrollable elements:

1. Get out there early to beat the pollution

Try to schedule your workout for the early morning during the spring and summer months if you can. “It may be best to exercise before 7 a.m., before traffic and noise start picking up,” she says. “This is for safety reasons as well as to avoid air pollution from the vehicles.”

Dr. Mavunda explains that, while in big cities like New York, air pollution from cars is always a problem, in less populated places, the weather can make a difference. “In rural areas, or in suburban areas, it may be worse during the hotter temperatures just because the gasses are more volatile," she says.

2. Check for wind, rain, and pollen

Look up how breezy it is outside before lacing up your shoes. “Usually, during spring and summer months, lots of things are blooming, so the wind carries the [pollen] around,” Dr. Mavunda says. “The pollen levels and number of allergens may be too high.”

Most cities share the pollen count. If it’s categorized as “moderate” or above, she urges people to consider staying inside. Paying attention to the count is especially important, she adds, if your home is near a lot of open spaces and trees.

And for some people, any pollen at all may be too much. “If somebody has allergies to pollen, they probably shouldn't be exercising outside,” she says.

Working out after it rains can also be a good idea for dealing with allergies, Dr. Mavunda adds, since the precipitation washes away pollen.

3. Grab a mask if it's smoky

Masking up is another good option when the air is smoky from a forest fire. “The mask would be able to stop those particles from being breathed in,” she explains.

As most all of us know all too well by now, wearing a cloth face mask over the nose and mouth may be more comfortable than a K95, Dr. Mavunda adds—and she says it does a good enough job in keeping those smoke particles out of your lungs.

At what point should you just exercise indoors?

While you can exercise outside when there’s smoke, exhaust fumes, or extreme temperatures outside, Dr. Mavunda encourages you to consider choosing an indoor space with a solid air filtration system—which some gyms have installed since the pandemic began.

You can find the most updated levels by checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) on AirNow. The “moderate” (51 to 100 AQI) and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (101 to 150 AQI) categories are labeled as yellow and orange, respectively. They mean it may be moderately unsafe for people who already have respiratory problems, such as asthma, COPD, or chronic sinusitis, as well as other health issues, to go outside. At the “unhealthy” red range, the index value is between 151 and 200, and just about everyone is at risk.

While getting in some movement outside can feel nice, it’s better to save it for times when it’s not a health concern. And hey, working out indoors isn’t too bad—gotta love the air conditioning and exercises you can do while watching TV!

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