The Air We Breathe & Exercising in It

Everyone breathes air, it is a fact of life. But have you ever thought about how the air quality affects your body, how it affects your healthy, active lifestyle outdoors?

Air pollution is a part of daily living in China as well as throughout the world. The air we all breathe in is composed of different gases such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Normally we are all fine with the air that we breathe with the exception to those who may have asthma or another respiratory ailment. In urban areas the aspects of daily living can have a huge impact on the air quality. Think of an industrial area or an area with large amounts of traffic daily. These areas are where air pollution is more noticeable because there are car exhaust fumes and factory fumes entering the air. In China the two cities with the best air quality are Shanghai and Guangzhou (close to the coast and have regular rainfall).

Two of the main components of air pollution are colorless, odorless gases: ozone and carbon monoxide. These two gases create smog when combined with the atmosphere. Both gases are emitted by factories that use coal for fuel, exhaust fumes from vehicles, and the combustion of fuels. Ozone levels in the atmosphere are highest in the afternoon; especially on sunny, windless days.


How does Air Pollution effect the body when exercising outdoors?

There are definitely days when you can notice the air quality is poor, you may even be able to see it when looking outside (smog). On these days it is advisable to adjust your training plan to train either in your home or a fitness facility.

Exercising outdoors on poor air quality days can have a negative impact on your body and training. When you reach a submaximal exercise level (power output= 100W or a respiratory rate greater than 35 breaths/minute) your body will switch from nose breathing to mouth breathing. Breathing through your nose allows the body to filter out some of the harmful particles in the air due to nose hair and mucous.

Short-term exposure to air pollution will alter your body’s lung and cardiovascular function. If you are training for a race or competition this could alter your VO2max level and cause you to reach your ventilatory threshold quicker than normal, which can decrease your training time or overall stamina for competition. Breathing patterns are altered when exposed to air pollution as it is a respiratory irritant. For those with asthma or diabetes the effects can be intensified or felt sooner in comparison to someone who doesn’t.

Chronic exposure to air pollution can increase your heart rate, which can decrease your athletic performance, stamina, and even athletic career.

Health Problems That Can Occur

Air pollution damages the air way and causes bronchoconstriction (narrowing of the airway. This in return makes the heart and lungs work harder in order to get oxygenated blood to all the tissues of the body. When you are exercising you may feel tired sooner.
Other health problems include:
– Increased risk of asthma and respiratory conditions
– Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
– Angina attacks
– Increased risk of lung cancer

Tips for Exercising in Polluted Areas:

– Monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI) (see photo below if you are unfamiliar)
– Avoid training near industrial areas
– Avoid training in the afternoon or rush hour
– Train early in the morning when the AQI is low
– Decrease training intensity and duration when the AQI is high
– Train inside
– Antioxidant supplementation
– Take steps to decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease
– Use anti-asthmatic medication as prescribed
– Consult with your physician with any concerns


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