Living in a Polluted Area: Should You Quit Running?

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How to be smart about running in a polluted area. Living in a Polluted Area: Should You Quit Running?

Air pollution is a serious problem in many areas of the United States. The problem is only getting worse as cities expand and roads become more populated. Here is a little science lesson about air pollution: The air consists of harmful particles in the air called “particulate matter” classified into two categories. The first is particles between 2.5-10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) and the second is particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). Our nose and esophagus can filter out PM10 like dust and pollen. The smaller the particle, the more dangerous it is to us. Particles in smoke or exhaust can enter our lungs and potentially cause cancer or respiratory disease over time. Children and the elderly are at a greater risk because their respiratory systems are more susceptible. You are also more likely to be affected by air pollution if you are doing high exertion activities outside, like running. When you run, you are inhaling a greater volume of air at a faster rate, thus taking in a greater volume of harmful particulate matter. So should you quit running?

I lived on the busiest street in Los Angeles when I was training for triathlons at UCLA. Black soot framed my windows. But I couldn’t stop running – I had a national championship to train for. So I opened my door to the sounds of engines and horns, took in a deep smoggy breath, and trotted away. Some days were worse than others. My eyes, nose, and throat would itch. If you are running and get symptoms like this, that means the air quality is not good enough for you to be running in, and you should stop running. Other symptoms that indicate you should stop running include coughing, shortness of breath, or asthma attacks. I didn’t know this at the time, but before you go for a run, you can check the quality of the air in your area online using the Air Quality Index. I wish I had known this so I didn’t have to find out the hard way! The AQI tells you just how safe the air quality is ranging from “good” to “hazardous” so that you can make a good judgment about whether you should go outside and run or not. No matter where you live, there is no way you are going to escape all air pollution. Even in rural areas there is pollen, dust, and sometimes methane gas if you are around farmland. So whether you live in the heart of Los Angeles, or the middle of Iowa, you have to be smart when you step outside for a run.

Areas to avoid:

  • Dusty dirt trails
  • Roads with a lot of cars and traffic
  • Smoggy or hazy areas
  • Large airports
  • Areas with heavy smoke like wildfires
  • Livestock farms
  • Industrial areas releasing chemical or gaseous waste

Even in a large city, there are ways to minimize exposure to pollution. Try to run in the suburbs and/or neighborhoods where there is less car traffic. Pockets like these, especially with a lot of foliage, will have significantly higher air quality than a busy area a few blocks away. The peak of air pollution in cities tends to be in the daytime and during rush hour. Consider going for a run in the early morning or late evening. You will notice a huge difference in the quality of air as opposed to going at rush hour. Another way to avoid air pollution is to leave it. When I got tired of all my neighborhood routes, I would drive or bike outside the city to a park or trail head and start my run from there. As I climbed high above the city and breathed in fresh air, I could look down and see a thin cloud of brown smog blanketing the hazy city in the distance. You can drive less than an hour away from most cities and find great areas to run with dramatically better air quality. I saw these escapes from the city as a luxury as it wasn’t convenient for me to do it every day. But going about 2 or 3 times a month was enough to do wonders for my respiratory and mental health! Running indoors can be another alternative but isn’t always the better option. Sometimes indoor air quality can be poorer than outside air quality. To increase indoor air quality, make sure there is good airflow throughout the space, put air filters on vents, and maybe have a few indoor plants! If you want to be extra cautious when running outside, try wearing a buff around your neck that you can put over your nose and mouth. Personally I will find any excuse to wear a buff because they are so versatile and cute!

Things you can do to minimize exposure to air pollution:

  • Run in the suburbs
  • Run in areas with heavy foliage
  • Run in the early morning or late evening
  • Wear a buff
  • Check the Air Quality Index
  • Look for parks and/or trails outside the city

If reading this made you never want to set foot outside that was not the point. The reality is that air pollution is a serious health concern that runners need to be aware of.  But if you live in a polluted area, it doesn’t mean you should quit running! You are only in immediate danger of running outside in polluted air if you are a child, an elderly person, or have preexisting health issues. If you are healthy, you just need to make sure you minimize your exposure so that you don’t develop symptoms over a long period of time. Before you go for a run, check the air quality and think about where you are running and at what time of day. Taking the necessary precautions will be in your best interest because not only is running with air pollution a serious health risk, it is also extremely unpleasant!