“I am a runner. I live by a spacious park. But to access it I have to pass through one of the main boulevards that connects the centre to the city’s largest residential area. There is loads of traffic – trams, buses and cars. How does air pollution affect me while running and what can I do to avoid it?”
Most people would agree that running is beneficial for our health. Or at least the advantages of energetic exercise outweigh the disadvantages. But, of course, that discounts the risk of running through thick smog. If you’re out and about when air pollution is at its worst, you could be doing your body more harm than good.
You don’t believe me? Check out the 2014 Beijing Marathon. Air pollution was so bad that runners probably inhaled 12.6 mg of PM 2,5 during the 4-hour race. That was the equivalent of what you would normally inhale over a 24-hour period. One participant, Chen Xiaohui, told the China Daily that he dropped out of the marathon because of fears for his health. “A marathon represents a healthy way of living life, not the opposite,” he was quoted as saying.
This exposure to insufferable air was by no means a one-off. In the 2006 Hong Kong marathon, many of the 40,000 runners complained of chest pains, cramp and difficulty breathing.
That breaking even point . . .
But even these cities are not the most extreme cases of air pollution. You see, you should bear in mind what experts call the “break even” or “tipping point”. This is the point whereby the damage from inhaling fine particulates outweighs the advantage of vigorous exercise. In cities such as Allahabad in India, or Zabol in Iran, this comes after just half an hour of cycling or running! In Delhi, or the Chinese city of Xingtai, where the air pollution is still abysmal but not quite so bad, this point is reached after an hour.
If you’re jogging or running hard in a city where air pollution is bad, you would be wise to think how you can minimise your exposure to those wretched PMs. When you’re running, you’re more likely to breathe through your mouth. Hard exercise means faster and deeper inhalation. So you take in more air and more rotten particles. So, yes, running can be a great stress buster but, on a bad day, it could exacerbate the harmful effects of air pollution. For example, doctors at the Asthma and Airway Center at Toronto’s University Health Network, disclosed that health crises such as strokes or heart attacks escalate during dirty air days.
Runners have more choices than cyclists
Runners face similar risks to cyclists in urban areas. So if you like running in towns or cities, you should try to use parks and public spaces with lower emission zones. Obviously, avoid congested main thoroughfares that give off the worst air pollution. Also steer clear of roads with high-rise buildings because they trap the air pollution and so have the highest concentration of PMs 2,5; use parallel roads that are safer and quieter.
But if you’re a runner – at least if you jog solely for recreational purposes – you have one big advantage over commuters who cycle to and from work. You can pick the right moment to go for your run. And you can be choosier about your route. You could avoid running in mid to late afternoon. This is when ground level ozone is at its highest. The best time is between 6am and 7.30am before traffic jams build and when (hopefully) yesterday’s air pollution has been blown away.
Run in parks and near water. Avoid running around the city centre. Research concludes that congestion equals air pollution. For example, a report in Lancet magazine concluded that the dose of air pollution older people received from a 2-hour walk in a traffic-filled street stiffened their arteries and impaired lung function.
City centre parks may not be as clean as you think
Use parks on the periphery. You’ll end up feeling better if you do. In London, a study showed that the least polluted green areas tended to be in the outskirts, such as Hampton Park and Dagnam Park. It’s perhaps no surprise that London’s most polluted park was Whittington Garden in the heart of the City.
So parks in the city centre may not be as healthy as you think. It all depends on what surrounds them. If it’s a small green strip, surrounded by skyscrapers, don’t assume that you’re benefiting from running up and down 20 times during your lunch break! Instead, you’d do better to consult an air quality map, note the wind direction, and choose parks far from busy main roads. Also, check out more about each park. If it’s being used to transport fuels, if chainsaws are operating, if it has few trees (leaves being a particularly effective reducer of air pollution) then it may not be a good choice. In the winter, of course, with the absence of foliage, it will make little difference anyway.
Bear in mind also the route to your park. You may have to cross some busy boulevards where air pollution levels are dire. Are you inhaling more than your fair share? Are you tipping over the “break-even point” en route, even if the park itself is clean? You would also do well to avoid any rural areas containing sprawling factory farms, power plants and burning forests. If you choose to run on dirt roads, then stay on the upwind side.
Of course, there’s no law that says you have to run outside. You could choose to run a treadmill in a gym. After all, you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people. And there’s no air pollution. But if you are a runner who feels compelled to exercise outside (even when the air pollution is bad) then you may need a mask. The problem is that, since you’ll be breathing through your mouth, just like with cyclists, you’ll need a mask that is comfortable and doesn’t hamper breathing. Airlief will have just the right one for you.