CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Fitness Dr.: Tips to Protect You, and Your Family, From Unhealthy Air

By Dr. Frederick Peters

Recently, air quality conditions in Cleveland, OH have reached dangerous levels. Any exposure to air that is considered “dangerous,” even for a few minutes, can lead to serious health effects.

Dangerous Levels
Fine particulate matter are inhalable pollutant particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers that can enter the lungs and bloodstream, resulting in serious health issues. The most severe impacts are on the lungs and heart. Exposure can result in coughing or difficulty breathing, aggravated asthma, and the development of chronic respiratory disease.

Air pollution can harm anyone, but it can be dangerous for children, people with asthma and other lung diseases, anyone over 65, anyone who exercises or works outdoors, people with diabetes, and those with cardiovascular disease. Even healthy adults, who exercise or work outdoors, can be harmed. Changing what you do on these bad air days can reduce your risk of being harmed.

Equivalent to Smoking 15 Cigarettes

An Air Quality Index (AQI) of more than 300 is considered “dangerous.” Cleveland recently experienced an AQI of more than 320. Twenty-four hours of exposure, at this level, is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes. Research suggests that wildfire smoke “may be more toxic” to the lungs than standard urban air pollution, since it contains a distinct mix of particulates that activate inflammatory cells “deep in the lungs” while hindering other cells that can dampen the inflammatory response later.

Tips for Protection from the Dangers of Air Pollution:

Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area. The color-coded forecasts can let you know when the air is unhealthy in your community. Sources include local radio and TV weather reports, newspapers and online at airnow.gov.

  • Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. When the air is bad, walk indoors.
  • Limit the amount of time your child spends playing outdoors if the air quality is unhealthy.
  • Always avoid exercising near high-traffic areas. Even when air quality forecasts are green, the vehicles on busy highways can create high pollution levels up to one-third a mile away.
  • If you choose to go against warnings and engage in exercise outside, the American Lung Association suggests finding areas that may have lower pollution areas, such as nature trails, and avoid the busiest traffic times of the day, when cars add the most particulate matter to the air.
  • On days with poor air quality, exercise inside, with windows tightly closed.
  • In the car, place your air conditioner on “recirculation mode.” This will filter the air inside the vehicle.
  • Purchase an air purifier with a HEPA filter. These devices can help to substantially reduce exposure to particulate-matter air pollution.
  • If you have to go outside, wear an N95 mask. Respirator masks may provide some protection by filtering out fine particles, but the hazardous gases found in smoke (such as carbon monoxide) will not be filtered out.

Effects of Exercising in Bad Air Quality
A 2021 study published in the European Heart Journal found that while physical activity is generally an important part of reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, in highly polluted air, it can do the opposite. The study, which looked at young adults exposed to particulate matter, found that those exposed to “high levels of PM2.5 or PM10, were at “an increased risk” of cardiovascular diseases. The study did note that higher-intensity exercises contributed to how much risk was posed.

Exercising in Bad Air Quality 
When AQI levels reach “unhealthy” levels (AQI >150), it’s recommended that people exercise indoors. Typically, it’s safe to exercise indoors during high pollution conditions, but that also depends on the venue in which you would be exercising. If windows and doors are constantly open, for example, there is a higher likelihood of the particulate matter getting indoors.

Safe Air Quality for Running Outdoors
Orange signifies “unhealthy for sensitive groups” on the color-coded Air Quality Index devised by the Environmental Protection Agency and the highest alert at which it is advisable for most people to exercise outside.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests making the planned physical activity less intense and shortening the duration of the workout as well. Those who have asthma are urged to always keep their inhalers on them during times of poor air quality. Don’t assume that you’re safe just because you’re healthy. Air pollution can threaten anyone’s health. Be aware of how you feel on high pollution days and take steps to help protect yourself.

*Dr. Peters is the founder of “The Fitness Doctor” (www.thefitnessdoctors.com). He has a Ph.D. in Physiology from Kent State University and is a certified member of the American College of Sports Medicine. Dr. Peters was born and raised in the Cleveland area and is a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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