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When Fresh Air Isn’t

  • April 1, 2011
  • 6:01 pm
  • 1 of 3
When Fresh Air Isn’t

Nothing is better than working up a good sweat in the great outdoors. But when you’re breathing hard, you need to be smart about what you’re sucking in.

By Katherine Bowers, Women’s Health

Right around the time when the days start getting longer and temps begin to rise, it’s normal to want to ditch your spin class and liberate the road bike that’s been sitting idle in your garage. What’s not to love about filling your lungs with fresh spring air?

Actually, there is something. If your favorite bike path winds along a busy thoroughfare, or the tennis court you frequent is located near a traffic-clogged intersection, you may be loading your lungs with harmful pollutants in the form of ozone (the main component of smog) and microscopic bits of soot, dust, aerosol, metal, free radicals, and other airborne contaminants. Not only does this toxic assault on your lungs compromise the effectiveness of your workouts, but it can also take a toll on your health.

If you can’t run outside, here’s how to improve the indoor air quality.

Running on Fumes

First, some good news. The air we breathe has become a lot cleaner in the past 30 years. Since 1980, emissions of the six worst pollutants have dropped by nearly 50 percent, thanks to stricter laws regulating air quality. But here’s the thing: People who exercise outdoors may still breathe in up to 10 times more airborne nastiness than those who spend less time being active outside. Whether your workout of choice is running, cycling, or taking boot-camp classes on the beach, doing any kind of vigorous outdoor exercise that causes you to breathe hard means you are gulping more air than if you were standing still, says Sam Callan, USA Cycling’s sport science and coaching education manager. Even moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, can increase the amount of air you inhale. And along with all that extra muscle-fueling oxygen comes supersize portions of unhealthy pollution.

What’s worse, as you huff and puff through your mouth, some of that contamination whooshes deep into your lungs, bypassing your nasal passages, the body’s natural air filter. The result? An irritated and inflamed trachea and lungs. You may wind up with symptoms such as a pesky cough, chest tightness, or a scratchy throat.

Over time, regular exposure to pollution may trigger exercise-induced asthma (an attack of wheezing and airway constriction during a workout) and ups your risk for lung cancer by 20 percent, the same as a nonsmoker living with a smoker, says George D. Thurston, Sc.D., a professor of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine. Joggers who regularly run in high-ozone conditions may experience a thickening of the lining of their lungs (typically a smoker’s affliction), which may prematurely age the lungs, although the exact health consequences are unknown, says Daniel Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a Boston nonprofit organization that studies pollution’s impact on health.

Asthma 101: What everyone should know about this common illness.

Yet these effects often go unnoticed. In fact, the fitter you are, the less likely you are to see signs. “Healthy people can be affected by air pollution without experiencing symptoms,” says Norman Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. So even if you feel fine, your lungs and workout still take a hit.

In a 2008 study, cyclists pedaled in polluted conditions. Three days later, the distance they could ride decreased by 5 percent. And women, who have smaller airways, are more affected by the irritation and swelling that restricts oxygen intake than men are. A 2010 study of marathon runners published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that higher rates of pollution slowed women’s race times, while men were unaffected.

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Rodale is a new original source for daily news, information, and advice on personal and environmental health. focuses on “Where Health Meets Green” topics, providing daily news stories and breaking news along with easy-to-follow, high-impact tips and advice.


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8:00PM PDT on Jun 13, 2011


2:31PM PDT on May 24, 2011

It's 5/24 and I'm catching up on Care2 emails again. Been pretty busy lately. And have pollution symptoms in lungs. But usually am indoors. And have windows open a lot, trying not to use a/c a lot because have heard that refrigerants in them a problem. Refrigerants like in them mess on air, and cause temp of it to warm? And when you run a/c's globally to stay cool, if this manage to heat air while a/c in use, it tragedy with global warming problems. And had apt. shut tight not long back, but got whiff of outdoor air before heavy rain cleansed it. Have had persistent dry cough, dry and/or scratchy throat, think maybe third symptom too. Not getting out much to exercise, or doing much physical activity indoors either. And do believe in antioxidants, but can't afford much food on low doles. Do try to keep good multiple supplements in me at least. And had forgotten to take C for a while. Maybe it help to start again tonight.

6:59PM PDT on May 21, 2011

Air is crucial, thanks!

2:54AM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

The air pollution angers me so much, I'm happy I don't live in a state with a lot of smog, because there's no way I'd stop going outdoors. I appreciate the fresh air I do get so much, as should everyone, because who knows how much longer we'll have it.

6:55PM PDT on Apr 12, 2011

Thanks for trying to help.

5:42PM PDT on Apr 12, 2011

Boo to air pollution

11:33PM PDT on Apr 6, 2011

thanks for sharing

10:32AM PDT on Apr 6, 2011

Thanks for the antioxidants tip! I will be eating my broccoli going forward!

For business owners who want to reduce their carbon footprint and air pollution, check out my company, Greenzu. We provide commercial solar without any upfront cost. Just buy the clean electricity.

2:18PM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

I never gave this very much thought, so now I know. Thanks Rodale.

8:16AM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

I used to live at the very edge of our city meaning after our neighborhood was farms now it has grown around us and more traffic and the air smells of car exhaust (yuk) my daughter has asthma and she is coughing more also we drive a hybrid but everyone else doesn't

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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