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Which is Worse: Exercising in Polluted Air, or Not Exercising at All?

Air quality is something that so many outdoor exercise enthusiasts take for granted. But are we doing more harm than good when we work out in polluted air?

Admit it: we've all used outdoor conditions that are out of our control as an excuse for skipping a workout. "It's too cold, it's too hot, it's raining, it's snowing, it's humid"...the possibilities for Mother Nature's sabotage are endless. After all, if you can blame weather for canceling your run, it somehow seems to make excuses for skipping that workout more valid. But one "this might make my run difficult" outdoor factor that so many of us might not even stop to consider?

Air pollution.

Air quality is something that so many runners and outdoor exercise enthusiasts take for granted. But for those who live in big cities and highly populated areas, pollution, smog, and other air quality issues can become a serious health concern. As it should be: many runners pride themselves on taking a proactive approach to their health. After all, it seems kind of counterproductive to train in an atmosphere that may cause more harm than good.

Air pollution, by definition, is the presence in or introduction into the air of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects. As exercise increases our breathing rate, and thus increases the volume of air passed in and out of our lungs, it's safe to assume that when we exercise in polluted air that we are greatly increasing the risk of inhaling possible toxins and pollutants in the air. Imagining thick smog taking hold and embedding pollutants in the lining of your healthy, pink, lungs is enough to scare anyone into running for the indoor treadmills...or make excuses to not exercise at all.

Which begs the question, which is worse for our health? Exercising in polluted air, or not exercising at all? Let's take a look:

The list of the positive benefits of exercise is long and well known, from decreased risk of premature death, heart disease, type two diabetes, cancer, and more. If you are already an avid runner or exerciser, I don't need to repeat these benefits to you, chances are you are already experiencing them yourself. On the other hand, inactivity can not only increase the possibility of these risks, but can contribute to obesity and an overall poor quality of life.

So let's look at the negative effects of exercising in polluted air: damage to airways of the lungs, increased risk of asthma development (or worsening of existing asthma or other lung conditions), increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, and increased risk of death from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease

All of these negatives sound terrifying, right?

Don't fret your healthy lungs just yet, the good news is this: research has found that the positive effects of exercise not only outweigh the negatives, but might actually aid in fighting the negative effects of pollution. In one research study, mice that regularly performed aerobic activity while exposed to diesel fuel fumes had less inflammation in their lungs than mice that were also exposed to diesel fuel fumes but did not exercise.

In other words, while exercising in pollution does indeed have negative effects, regular exercise has protective counter effects, which in the end makes exercise, even in poor conditions, more beneficial than not exercising at all. So in most cases, air pollution shouldn't be an excuse to skip your workout (sorry!).

Still, there are a number of precautions you can take to avoid over exposure to air pollutants while exercising.

> Pollution levels tend to be highest during the warmest parts of the day, so time your run or other outdoor activity for early morning or later in the evening.

> Check the air quality index for your location. Experts recommend not exercising outdoors when the air quality is ranked at "Code Orange" or higher.

> Avoid running or exercising near roads, if at all possible. Air quality levels tend to be worse near heavy traffic areas.

> Have a backup plan. On days when the air quality is exceptionally poor, head indoors to a local gym. Use the opportunity to do some cross training.

Sure, exercising in polluted air environments is certainly not ideal, but the benefits of exercise as a whole seem to outweigh the potential risks. As always, let your body be the determining voice. If you experience any negative symptoms from exercising in polluted air, seek treatment and advice from your doctor, and look for cleaner air alternatives.

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