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Delhi Pollution: Should you be exercising outdoors?

Is it possible to go running or for a workout in a city like Delhi with high air pollution? Lounge speaks to doctors and fitness experts to find out

Should you be running or working out outdoors?
Should you be running or working out outdoors? (Istockphoto)

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Swetha Prashant, 38, who lives in South Delhi, refuses to step outdoors with her 3-year-old son who suffers from a lung condition. Terrible air pollution has forced her to stay cooped up in her home, where air purifiers run around the clock. “I can’t risk it,” she says.

Vijaya Bhadani, 35, a runner who lives in Noida, has stopped running since Diwali, when the pollution levels in the National Capital Region went off the charts. “I have asthma, it’s under control but I never leave my house without an inhaler. With the pollution levels so high, I’d rather stay in and not risk an asthma attack,” she says. 

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Shailja Singh, 42, moved out of Gurugram in 2019 because his then 7-year-old son used to fall sick frequently due to the pollution in the region. “We used to run to the doctor all the time back in Gurugram. Since moving to Bengaluru, he hasn’t fallen sick much,” says Singh.  

This fear of pollution is neither irrational nor unwarranted, as even healthy people with no past history of respiratory diseases are reporting lung infections and other respiratory issues, say doctors and fitness experts. So, if you love running, cycling, walking or sweating it out outdoors, you need to rethink how you will get your workouts in. “In recent years people check the AQI levels rather than the weather on their phones. Breathing poisonous air is definitely harming our bodies in urban as well as rural areas nowadays,” says Gagan Arora, celebrity fitness trainer and founder of Kosmic Fitness in New Delhi. 

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The level of air pollution is a health risk, says Dr. Purodha Prasad of Pristyn Care, New Delhi. “An AQI score of 50 or less indicates healthy air quality, whereas one of over 300 indicates hazardous air quality. In general, AQI levels of 100 or less are considered good. Air quality is unhealthy when AQI values are above 100… initially for some vulnerable groups. A health alert is triggered with AQI readings between 201 and 300, which means that everyone may experience more severe health impacts.”

“When AQI levels breach the 300-mark most people start experiencing itchiness in eyes, scratchy throat and flu-like symptoms,” adds Arora. Numerous negative health effects might also result from exposure to excessive amounts of air pollution. “Exposure to high levels of pollution raises the risk of lung cancer, heart problems, and respiratory infections. Health effects have been linked to both short- and long-term exposure to air pollution,” says Prasad.

Should you exercise outdoors?

Dr. Mrinal Sircar, director and head of department for pulmonology and critical care medicine at Fortis Hospitalin Noida, says high pollution levels can aggravate the symptoms of any lung condition you might have. “Avoid exercising outside during peak pollution hours. Even healthy people should avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. Avoid running, jogging or walking outdoors in the evening and mornings (when the pollution levels peak) and near areas with high vehicular traffic. 

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Arora says even though he continues to conduct outdoor running sessions, the group runs and exercises a lot less on heavy smog days. “If we are preparing for a race, we change the running distances as per AQI level forecast. Also, if you must workout despite the pollution, it is best to reduce the intensity, frequency and duration of the workout,” Arora adds. “However, if you are not training for a race or an event, it’s best to take a few days off and enjoy workouts in controlled environments such as a gym or at home. Go back to outdoor training when the air gets a little better.”

What’s the best way to exercise amid pollution?

Dr. Vivek Singh, director of respiratory and sleep medicine at Medanta Hospital in Gurugram, warns that it is not safe for anyone to workout or step outside when the AQI is really poor. “If you must step out, wear a N95 mask,” he says.

If you wear a mask while exercising, Arora says you must stay in ‘lower heart rate’ zones. “High intensity workouts need a lot of air which will be an added challenge with a mask on. If the AQI is 300 or more, avoid high intensity and long workouts altogether,” he says. Exercise in the right way and in the right amount; stay hydrated and take good care of your diet, advises Sircar. Make sure you are breathing through your nose and not your mouth most times, stick to low intensity workouts and exercise in controlled environments whenever possible, adds Arora.

“Running or jogging, in general, causes shortness of breath, and we require a constant supply of oxygen while running; however, if the air quality is poor, all you get is pollutants and less oxygen, which aggravates your condition,” Sircar says. Working out outdoors even while wearing a mask could still disrupt your breathing patterns making you feel breathless or dizzy, warns Prasad. If you face any issues in breathing or itchiness in the throat, see a doctor.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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