Running is supposed to be good for you, but if you frequently run in urban environments, you could be putting yourself at risk for a number of health conditions due to air pollution.
According to the American Lung Association, the ill effects of air pollution can include coughing and wheezing, shortness of breath, acute or chronic asthma, compromised immune function, damage to the heart, swelling of the lungs and lung cancer. It can also be a negative factor in reproductive health for adults and cause developmental harm in young children.
Individuals who frequently exercise in areas or on days with elevated pollution levels are at greater risk for these health conditions than the general population. You can find out about the air quality in your local area by checking out American Lung Association's latest "State of the Air" report, which states "more than four in 10 people live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe."
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According to the report, the most polluted city by ozone is Los Angeles-Long Beach; the cleanest is Bellingham, Wash. Luckily, no matter where you live, there are a few precautionary measures you can take to reduce your exposure and lower the associated risks.
Know the Local Conditions
Keep on top of local air quality ratings and warnings. Many major television news stations will include these ratings and warnings as part of the weather forecast, but you can also find the information online through your state, county or city pollution control agencies. If you type "air quality" and the name of your city, county or state into a search engine, you should be able to find the official governmental agency that monitors and reports pollution levels in your area. It's also important to be aware of any temporary events that might pose a greater risk, such as chemical spills, wildfires or controlled burns.
Run Early in the Morning or Late in the Evening
Running before or after rush hour lowers your exposure to pollutants because there are fewer of them in the air. It also tends to be a little cooler during these times of the day (especially morning) and high temperatures generally correspond to higher pollution levels.
Run in Bad Weather
Rain and strong winds often naturally mitigate air pollution; so don't be afraid to get your run in during a light rain. Just be sure to avoid dangerous conditions, such as thunderstorms or very high winds.
Consider Pollution When Choosing Your Route
Location is the biggest air pollution factor that you have control over. Of course, running in a wooded setting, far removed from sources of pollution is ideal, but it is still possible to greatly reduce your exposure to pollutants in urban areas.
Low-lying valleys tend to have higher levels of pollution in the surface air than flat areas or hilltops. If you live in a valley, it might be worth a short drive (hopefully in a low-emission vehicle) outside of that area.
Industrial areas should be avoided at all cost. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they might not only contain the more common ozone, carbon monoxide and particulate pollution, but also other very dangerous pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and lead.
Finally, if you have to run in the middle of the city, take a few moments ahead of time to make sure your route doesn't take you within 300 yards of major highways or large, stoplight-controlled intersections, where vehicles idle for extended periods of time. Park roads and trails are ideal, but most residential streets will meet this guideline, too.