Is it safe to run outside when the air quality is poor?

This is a growing concern for runners, cyclist and hikers, really for anyone who likes to exercise outside. With the local wild fire in Southern California and the smell of smoke in the air it got me thinking of air quality and whether or not I should be running, even on the days there’s no smoke. Are the pollutants in the air causing irreversible damage and ultimately defeating the purpose of trying to be active and healthy? Unfortunately there are no clear cut answers but here is what I learned.

Sources of air pollution :

  • motor vehicles
  • pollen from flowers, trees and scrubs
  • dust
  • construction
  • power plants
  • wood burning

Health problems related to pollution:

  • headaches
  • irritation to eyes, nose and throat
  • damage to lungs
  • increase risk of developing asthma
  • worsening asthma
  • increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • increased risk of death from lung cancer and heart disease


When I was looking up information for this post I found that most articles stated that there has not been enough long term research to really give a definitive answer regarding the long term effects of pollution and exercising outdoors when air quality is particularly bad. The constant I found was that the benefits out-weighed the risks. Exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body which counteracts problems such as heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, etc. In addition the body naturally protects itself against harmful irritants by forming a protective barrier. The human body is amazing…it will adapt.

Having said that, it is still wise to avoid running (cycling, strenuous hiking) when the air quality is poor. (smoke from wild fires)

How to protect yourself from everyday pollution:

  1. Exercise in the early morning  before it gets hot or traffic picks up, or late afternoon/evening after it cools down and traffic slows down. [Heat and sunlight intensify chemical compounds, then combines with the nitrogen oxide (found in the air naturally) which results in smog.]
  2. Avoid busy roads. Running on streets just 1/4 mile away from heavy trafficked areas can help.
  3. Check out Find the best time to run in relation to air quality. Or maybe to avoid running outside all together.
  4. Workout indoors. Go to the gym, run on a treadmill (ugh), take a yoga class, or take a rest day. Maybe it’s a good time to do some much needed stretching. 🙂
  5. Take antioxidants regularly. Helps protect from free radicals caused by pollution induced stress on the body. (examples of antioxidants: blueberries, dark chocolate, cilantro…some of my favorites)

I hope this has enlightened some of you. It has me.  I have been running on the streets for a lot of years and I generally avoid heavy traffic times but now I’m thinking of moving my routes to neighborhood streets. I try to eat foods that contain antioxidants but I will be more diligent now. 🙂

Do you worry about air pollution?

Have you had to bring your workout indoors because of smoggy days?

Thanks for reading!

Keep Running my friends!


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