How Does Air Quality Impact Exercise?

Getting in shape is one of the best things that you can do to stay healthy. Regular exercise can help you look, think, feel and even sleep better. However, when air quality is poor, working out can come with its own health hazards. 

Physical activity typically increases your breathing rate, which can cause you to breathe in more pollutants than you do when you are at rest. Fortunately, you can take steps to protect yourself from air pollution, no matter whether you exercise indoors or outdoors.

What causes poor air quality?

When you are exercising regularly, you start to pay more attention to how you treat your body — watching what you eat, drinking more water and trying to get more quality sleep. Avoiding exposure to air pollution may not be on that list yet, but it should be.

Outdoor air pollution is largely caused by emissions, both from vehicles as well as industrial sources. Wildfire smoke can also contribute to poor outdoor air quality. Pollutants from these sources can consist of both particulate matter and gases, including ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. If you are curious about the air pollution in your area, you can check your local outdoor air quality index (AQI) on AirNow.gov.

On days with poor outdoor air quality, you may choose to move your workout indoors. However, indoor quality can sometimes be even worse than the air outdoors. While pollution from outside can get inside, there are also other sources of pollutants indoors, including:

  • Open fires;
  • Off-gassing from furniture and building materials;
  • Household cleaning and maintenance products;
  • Second-hand smoke;
  • Cooking;
  • Cooling systems;
  • Allergens, such as dust, pet dander and mold spores.

Like outdoor pollution, indoor pollution can be made up of both gases and particulate matter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, potential indoor pollutants include:

  • Asbestos;
  • Carbon monoxide;
  • Formaldehyde;
  • Lead;
  • Nitrogen dioxide;
  • Radon;
  • Particulate matter;
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

How does air pollution impact health?

When the National Ambient Air Quality Standards were first created in 1970, people were mainly worried about the effects of air pollution on respiratory health (with good reason — exposure to air pollution has been linked to the development of emphysema, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis).

However, since the creation of the NAAQS, research has found associations between air pollution and health effects that spread past the lungs, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, skin damage and immune system, as well as reproductive and neurological disorders. 

Many of the above conditions are associated with chronic exposure to air pollution, but short-term exposure comes with its own set of risks. These are often similar to allergy symptoms, such as:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation;
  • Headaches;
  • Dizziness;
  • Fatigue;
  • Aggravated asthma symptoms.

How can air pollution affect your breathing during exercise?

When you exercise, you breathe in deeper and faster, taking more air into your lungs than you do when you are at rest. Unfortunately, if you are working out somewhere with poor air quality, this can mean that you are also breathing in pollutants at a faster rate. 

Additionally, most people tend to breathe through their mouths when they exercise. While your nose and nasal passages can filter out some of the larger particle pollutants before they reach your lungs, your mouth cannot. 

These two factors can lead to an increased level of pollutants entering your airways when you exercise in an area with low air quality, whether it is indoors or outdoors. 

Though research generally suggests that the benefits of exercise (for most people) outweigh the risks associated with breathing in polluted air, you should still pay attention to the air quality of the spaces in which you exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends finding a balance between maintaining a healthy level of physical activity and reducing your exposure to airborne pollutants.

How to protect your air quality when you exercise

If you are exercising outdoors, the rules to avoiding poor air quality are fairly simple: exercise earlier in the day, avoid exercising during rush hour, and switch to indoor exercise on days when outdoor pollution levels are high. But what are you supposed to do in the event of high indoor air pollution levels? Here are some tips to reduce indoor air pollution from the American College of Sports Medicine:

  • Keep all smoking and vaping outdoors, and avoid lighting incense, scented candles, and open fireplaces. The combustion from these activities can increase levels of particle pollution in your home.
  • Switch to no- or low-VOC cleaning products, such as those that meet the EPA’s Safer Choice Standard. Also, avoid exercising right after you clean. Instead, increase ventilation and wait for the room to air out first. 
  • Avoid using air fresheners and aerosol sprays when possible, especially before your workout. 
  • Store sources of air pollution, such as paint cans, in a detached garage or somewhere away from where you usually work out.
  • Make sure that your home has adequate ventilation, especially in rooms with high-pollutant or high-moisture activities. These include the kitchen (cooking can be a significant source of airborne pollutants), the laundry room and the bathroom.

If your home does not have central forced-air heating and cooling, it may be difficult to get the level of ventilation you need to keep airborne pollutants from building up to dangerous levels. On good air quality days, you can open windows to increase ventilation. However, that is not always an option, especially for people who live near busy roads or highways where vehicle emissions can get into the home and contribute to poor indoor air quality. 

An air purifier can help you increase the air circulation in your home while removing pollutants from the air. Most air purifiers are designed to clean the air in a single room. So, if you only have one unit, you should consider working out in whichever room you use the air purifier (but remember, unlike HVAC systems, air purifiers need to stay on continuously to provide the most air purification benefit).

You should also note that most types of air filtration can filter either gases or particles from the air, but not both. Some air purifiers address this by combining two forms of filtration — typically HEPA and carbon — to handle both types of pollution. Molekule air purifiers use PECO technology instead, which can trap and destroy both particles and gases at the molecular level. 

Check out this post to learn more about how PECO technology works.

Sticking to an exercise routine is an excellent, healthy habit, no matter your current level of physical activity. If you want to get the most benefit from your workout, try to exercise in spaces with good air quality. By monitoring the AQI in your area and taking steps to minimize the pollution in your home, you can help protect yourself from harmful pollutants while you work out.