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The Harmful Effects of Running and Exercising Outdoors

You Asked: Running in Polluted Air

Hi FitSugar, Has the topic of running and pollution been raised recently? I live in Los Angeles and gave up running in the morning because my lungs would burn afterward and I'd be coughing the rest of the day. I wouldn't have the symptoms when I ran before rush hour, at night, or at the gym. I am a non-smoker, typically running 3-5 miles at an easy pace, 2-3 days per week. Have other readers had the same experience, or do you have some thoughts on avoiding pollution-related lung or heart damage for city runners? —Secondhand Smog Sucks

This is a great question, and one that extends to international proportions. Training in pollution was a huge topic during the Beijing 2008 Olympics due to the city's high level of air pollutants. Individuals noted that running in Beijing was a nightmare on the lungs, and many athletes refused to train there before the games. And though air pollution in Beijing is a whopping five times higher than the World Health Organization's standard, it got people thinking about what harmful effects they might be exposing themselves to when exercising outdoors.

To find out what risks are associated with exercising outdoors,


Even though the United States adheres to strict air quality standards, exercising outdoors may be risky. Air quality varies from city to city, and since athletes breathe with "particular vigor and oomph," this might be especially harmful in cities with poorer air quality, like Los Angeles. As reported by the New York Times:

Dr. Kenneth Rundell, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, said, "Athletes typically take in 10 to 20 times as much air," and thus pollutants, with every breath as sedentary people do.

Despite this news, experts say that you shouldn't stop running outside. The good news is that the risks associated with air pollution are small compared with the damages associated with "cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking, obesity, or high blood pressure." Instead, limit your exposure to air pollutants: avoid running at rush hour and keep as far away from traffic as possible. Also, stay away from any areas where exhaust may be an issue. Because ozone levels are at their lowest when the sun goes down, work out at night or during early morning hours.

And while the short term effects of air pollution fall in line with what you describe —  burning lungs or eyes, coughing, and chest tightness — the long-term effects (especially in relation to low-level exposure) are a  new area of study with spotty data. The EPA does warn that constant exposure to "dust, fuel combustion, power plants, and diesel buses and trucks" can cause significant health problems like chronic bronchitis or asthma.

To be extra safe, check your local air quality forecast before heading out. If air quality is poor, make that a day to exercise indoors. Keep in mind that when exercising outdoors you breathe in a lot more pollutants than otherwise so consider keeping workouts inside if air quality is ranked as "unhealthy for sensitive groups," and most definitely if it falls below this level.

Image Source: Getty
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