Bad Air Days

Urban pollution can undo your fitness plans. To avoid the big wheeze, check out our guide to finding the freshest outdoor oxygen in cities across the country.

Nov 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

Atmospheric Disturbance: What you inhale while you play the game changes all the rules.    Photo: Patrik Giardino/Corbis

DO YOU THINK GOOD HEALTH MAKES YOU impervious to smog? Tell that to 28-year-old 400-meter hurdler Ryan Tolbert-Jackson, who, back in 1997, developed debilitating asthma while competing at the World Track & Field Championships in Athens, Greece.

"My breathing was labored, and I fatigued easier," she said later. "It was as if I had a virus or severe allergies."

In fact, she suffered from overexposure to noxious air, which tends to hit exceptionally fit people the hardest.

"It's not fair," says Randall Brown, a pulmonologist with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, at Scottish Rite Hospital. "The healthiest individuals experience the worst exposure of anyone from exercising in pollution-heavy environments. In effect, they are the canaries in the coal mine, because their lungs are so sensitive."

But it's not just elite athletes who are at risk. Roughly 159 million people, more than half the population of the United States, now live in cities with unhealthy levels of pollution, so anyone exerting themselves outdoors should consider what they're breathing. "The negative effects on health that can come from exercising on a bad day can outweigh the positive benefits of sticking to a training program," says Ron Allice, director of the track-and-field program at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

Does this mean you should toss out an exercise regimen at the first sign of brown haze? No, but you should be smarter about location and timing. Stick to the following tips and maximize your fresh-air exposure, inhaling the best O2 your city has to offer.

Work out before the morning commute. Pollution from the previous day has dissipated, there are fewer cars on the road, and ozone production (see "Meet the Villains"), which requires direct sunlight, hasn't peaked. Can't get out early? Wait until after dinner, when rush hour has ended and ozone is on the wane.
Let wind be your friend. Breezes blow away pollutants, so USC track practice is scheduled for 2 p.m., says Allice, because a westerly sets up every day "like clockwork."
Avoid high-traffic areas. Paths or parks next to freeways or major thoroughfares are trouble. Choose routes along quiet side streets.
Reduce your particulate intake. Exercise at a pace that allows you to breathe through your nose, and drink plenty of water to help produce mucus, a natural filter.
Lengthen your recovery. Follow the program used by Allice on smog-alert days: Triple the time to recover after each sprint, from one minute up to three minutes.
Beware cumulative, long-term exposure. "Lower levels of pollution that didn't affect you last year will cause wheezing and coughing this year," says Brown.
Move your workout inside. If the atmosphere is downright hazardous (see "The AQ Test"), skip the outdoors and work out at home, or wait until things improve.

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