How to gauge whether the air is clean enough for outdoor exercise

At the Optimist Daily, we care about the well-being of our readers. That’s why we want to share this little guide to help you figure out whether the air quality in your area is safe enough for outdoor exercise.

Especially as wildfires continue to blaze on the West Coast, it’s vital to keep an eye out on your local air quality index (AQI) levels, a measurement that tells us what the current nearby air quality is like. Before we dive into the AQI though, let’s talk about how poor air quality impacts our health.

Wildfires release tiny particular matter called PM2.5, which hangs around in the air and gets lodged deep inside the throat and lungs when inhaled. When that happens, the particles can cause a lot of adverse effects on our health. In the short term, people who inhale air with high PM2.5 levels may experience difficulty breathing, a cough, runny nose, eye irritation, sore throat, and heart palpitations. However, those with underlying health issues like asthma or heart disease can experience worse effects from PM2.5. In some cases, the tiny particulate matter can cause direct injury to the airways and lead to a lot of inflammation, exasperating these conditions and sending some to the hospital.

Making sense of AQI: AQI charts look at the amount of PM2.5 and other pollutants like ozone in the air. You can check online and see what the AQI is in your local area. Typically, AQI is displayed in different tiers:

  • 0–50. The air is good.
  • 51–100. The air is moderate, and people who are unusually sensitive may experience symptoms.
  • 101–150. The air is unhealthy for sensitive groups, like those with asthma or COPD.
  • 151–200. The air is unhealthy for people with conditions and sensitive groups; some people in the general public may experience health effects, too.
  • 201–300. Health alert; risk factors are increased for everyone.
  • 301+. The air is hazardous.

While the 0-50 is a green zone where exercise is safest, the tier above that can already be hazardous for some.

“With 50 to 100, we usually think it’s probably OK to open your windows and go outside and exercise, but some people may be particularly sensitive,” said Christine Wiedinmyer, Ph.D.

Some people, even those who are healthy, might feel some symptoms minutes, to hours, to days after exercising outside in the 100 to 150 range, but it’s really different from person to person. This tier is a bit of a gray zone, according to Christenson, so you’ve really got to listen to your body. If you start to feel anything — which is not always shortness of breath but sometimes headache, fatigue, dizziness, or palpitations — your body is telling you it needs clean air.

Play it safe: While it may be OK to exercise when the AQI stands between 50-100, it’s important to understand that AQI is based on short-term health effects, not the long-term risks. Scientists don’t have much data on the health issues caused by long-term exposure, so it can be a good idea to skip outdoor exercise if the AQI is above the green zone. It’s also not a bad idea to wear a mask when you exercise outside in order to minimize your exposure to tiny particulate matter exposure (and Covid-19).

Need more information on AQI? Check this guide from Healthline.

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