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How to exercise when your city has high pollution

If you live in a city with high air pollution, you should avoid these activities and exercises. We speak to doctors and fitness experts for advice

Don't go for a run when there is severe air pollution.
Don't go for a run when there is severe air pollution. (Hindustan Times)

The peak pollution season has come even before Diwali rolled in this year. The air quality in Delhi has literally been off the charts, as the city exceeded the highest value of the Air Quality Index (AQI) of 500. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, people have been complaining about pollution-fuelled smog since mid-October. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) an AQI reading of 5 or below is considered healthy. 

However, doctors in India feel that the reality of the country’s air pollution levels makes it necessary to relax these standards a bit. “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 and unhealthy when the reading crosses 100,” says Dr. Madhu Sudan V., senior consultant, ENT, Pristyn Care Hospital. 

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As if the breathing problems caused by pollution wasn’t dire enough, a team of Indian researchers last week published a study that found that sustained exposure to pollution increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes, which is already an ongoing crisis in India. 

This is an especially difficult period for everyone, including those who like to exercise—including those who need to exercise for various health reasons, like improving their cardiac function. Doctors and fitness coaches are unanimous in asking people to avoid exercising outdoors, going for runs, walks or cycling because the high pollution will reverse any gains you may get from the exercise. Even an N95 mask or gas mask isn’t of much help. 

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“Working out outside can prove to be dangerous for your health even while wearing a mask as it can still disrupt your breathing patterns leaving you breathless or dizzy. Even healthy people with no past history of respiratory diseases are reporting lung infections and other respiratory issues due to the increased levels of pollution. Hence, you must stay indoors unless extremely necessary,” says Madhu Sudan V.

Delhi-based coach and founder of Kosmic Fitness Gagan Arora advises checking the AQI levels if, and only if, you have no other choice but to exercise outdoors, such as going for a long run. “Breathing poisonous air harms our bodies so if you have to train outdoors, first check the AQI levels and train only when the AQI levels are well under 200. This is also harmful so you must reduce your intensity and volume of exercise to protect yourself from pollution,” adds Arora.

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Dr. Mrinal Sircar, director and head of department for pulmonology and critical care medicine at Fortis Hospital in Noida, says that whether you have healthy lungs or not, you must stay indoors when AQI levels are dangerously high. “Running or jogging, in general, causes shortness of breath, and we require a constant supply of oxygen while running. But, if the air quality is poor, all you get is pollutants and less oxygen, which aggravates your condition,” Sircar warns. “Rather than stepping outdoors, it would be more prudent to exercise indoors in a gym or at home and get back to outdoor training when the air quality gets a little better after a few weeks,” says Arora. 

This is when the treadmill becomes the best friend of all runners who are training for a race, including India’s most popular run, Tata Mumbai Marathon, scheduled for January 2024. The practical and safe options available to outdoor enthusiasts are yoga, strength training, pilates, spinning, cycling on your trainer and mobility work.

Exercising outdoors in high-pollution conditions can cause itchiness in the eyes, scratchy throat and flu-like symptoms. You must make sure you wear an N95 mask whenever you step out. If you are among those who braves the pollution and exercises with an N95 mask on despite all the warnings, make sure you track your heart rate and stay in lower heart rate zones (Zone 1 and 2) all through the workout. Do not attempt HIIT workouts with a mask on, as such exercises require a lot more air and oxygen compared to normal workouts. With a mask on, even regular breathing is a challenge. 

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“While training outdoors with a mask on, make sure you are breathing through your nose and not your mouth, stick to low intensity workouts and exercise in controlled environments whenever possible,” says Arora. Avoid early morning walks because pollution tends to be at a peak around then, and don’t self-medicate in case you feel unwell. Eat a diet rich in antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, hydrate well with loads of water as that helps in removing harmful toxins from the body. And if you are asthmatic, always keep an inhaler handy.

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

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