So how bad is exercising outside on your health when pollution levels are high? Smog is a problem that plagues cities particularly in the summer when the temperatures rise. There is a lot of information on what to do when walking in the heat. But what about walking in the smog? Are there any risks with walking when pollution levels are high?
Besides being uncomfortable – scratchy throat and itchy eyes when you are outside for long periods of time there are some things you need to watch out for if you walk in a smoggy area. I live in Atlanta which has many summer days when the air is considered unhealthy by EPA standards. You can see the haze settled over the city when you approach it from any direction by either a car or a plane.
You try to be good to the environment and your well-being by walking to the store but is it really good for you to be walking when the air quality is bad? There have been a number of times when I have gone for a walk prepared for the heat only to find I have problems breathing, not bad, but uncomfortable. I don’t have asthma, and I know my discomfort coincides with our orange and red air days (code for unhealthy air) so I decided to do a little research. Here is what I found out from the EPA web-site.
Breathing polluted air can be hazardous to your health because it contains ozone. Ozone can be either good or bad. Good ozone is found 10 to 30 miles above the earth’s surface. Unfortunately most of us do not live 10 to 30 miles above the earth’s surface so we are exposed to the ozone that occurs near ground level. This is bad ozone and is formed when pollutants emitted from cars and other industrial sources react chemically in the sunlight.
One out of every three people is sensitive to high levels of smog. As the levels of bad ozone increases more people are negatively affected.
There are several short term effects in the lungs:
- Smog can irritate the respiratory system. You may experience coughing, an uncomfortable sensation in your chest or irritation in your throat. These symptoms can last for a few hours after exposure.
- Reduced lung function can make it difficult to breathe deeply. You may find yourself taking more rapid shallow breaths.
- Ozone may aggravate asthma.
- Ozone can damage and inflame the lining of the lung. Some scientists compare this to sunburn on the skin. Within a few days the damaged cells are replaced and the old cells are shed.
- Scientists believe there may be other effects mostly short-term though there is some concern about the long-term effect of prolonged exposure or of the effect on children
The EPA and state and local agencies have developed a number of tools to let the public track the air quality in their area. Being a visual person, I like the color coded chart that is often presented with your local weather and on local news web-sites. The color coding system works as follows:
- Green – Good
- Yellow – Moderate
- Orange – Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
- Red – Unhealthy
- Purple – Very Unhealthy
Learn more about air quality in your area at the EPA web-site
As for me, I don’t like walking in the heat anyway. Since heat and smog are linked I will avoid walking in the smog and move my exercise indoors to a treadmill on days that are orange, red or purple – though having too many purple days may make me consider relocating. I will try to drive less on days when the air quality is bad, but I won’t substitute walking for driving on those days. Exercise should make you feel better not worse so…. no smog walking for me.
Note: Flickr Photo Courtesy of Clay Thurmond Cycling