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Is Running or Cycling in Smog Bad for Health?

We answer an avid runner’s question about exercising outdoor when haze strikes.

Q: Forest fires in neighboring countries have resulted in a haze over my country. Should I continue to run or cycle outdoor when my city is shrouded in a thick haze? Is haze harmful to my health?

Running-Cycling-Smog-PollutionA: The short answer is, it depends. Haze is usually measured by an air quality index. For example, in Malaysia, it is called the Air Pollutant Index (API), while in Singapore it is known as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) and in the USA it is the Air Quality Index (AQI). With the latest air quality index value, we can gauge the severity of air pollution in the last three or 24 hours, depending on how often readings are being taken. The higher the value, the more severe the air pollution.

Generally, if the PSI value is below 100, it is safe to carry on normal outdoor activities as usual, provided you are not suffering from any respiratory or heart disease, and you are not unusually sensitive to air pollutants. If you do, it is advisable to refrain from unnecessary outdoor activities, including jogging, running, tennis or soccer, to limit your exposure to air pollutants, especially particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers.

Limiting Outdoor Activities During Haze

When we exercise, we tend to breath harder and faster than usual to increase our air intake. Therefore, if there are harmful particles in the air, as it will during a haze, we will inevitably breath in more of these pollutants into our lungs. For those with an existing respiratory or heart condition, these minute particles can be dangerous as they could trigger an asthma or heart attack.

As the PSI reading crosses above 100, there is an increased risk of getting eye irritation, sneezing or coughing. At this level and beyond, even those without any pre-existing illnesses should limit their contact with air contaminants and cut down on outdoor activities whenever possible.

air-pollution-face-mask-bike-cyclingIf the PSI value continues to climbs above 200 or more, the haze may become potentially life-threatening for susceptible populations like heart and respiratory patients, the elderly and young children. People in this group should stay indoor and cut down on strenuous activities. The general population should also avoid vigorous outdoor activities.

At home and in the office, you should close all windows and doors, turn on the air conditioner or air purifier if you have one, and avoid burning anything indoor to prevent the building up of indoor air pollutants. If you must go outside, it is advisable to put on a respirator, or at least a N95 mask. It may also be necessary to put on a mask indoor if the haze reaches a hazardous level.

Keep Updated

It is important to keep an eye on the latest air quality index value for your area before hitting the road for a run or a bike ride. Up-to-date health data is usually available on the websites of relevant government agencies. For Malaysia’s API readings, you can check the Department Of Environment’s website. For Singapore’s air quality readings, check the National Environment Agency’s website for the latest results.

If you have a choice between exercising indoor or outdoor during a haze, a smarter choice is almost always to exercise indoor, especially when the PSI climbs above 100. It is wise not to expose yourself to unnecessary air pollutants, especially fine particles which can put your long-term health at risk.

Beware of Roadside Running

On a separate note, even when the weather is clear, you should also choose where you run carefully. If you have the habit of running along roads with heavy traffic, you are exposing yourself to diesel exhaust fumes which have been found in studies to promote cancerous growth, induce stress, increases the risk of heart disease and even affect the IQ of unborn babies. Be sure to read up on the potential serious damages traffic exhaust can do to your body before your next run!

But don’t let all these talks about haze and diesel fumes turn you off from running. Running is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that gives the lungs and heart a good workout. Just be sure to choose the right time and place to run. And there are no lack of good places to run.

When there is a haze, head to your nearest gym and step on a treadmill or an elliptical trainer. If you do not wish to commit long-term to any particular gym, many of them do accept walk-in customers and you just need to pay per entry.

After the haze has subsided and you prefer to stay off the road for your run, public parks and gardens are excellent choices. These green sanctuaries are free of dangerous traffic and filthy smoke, and they are also full of trees and plants that give off oxygen and air-cleaning negative ions. Plus, you might even find like-minded people who share your love of running.

Happy running and cycling!

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