Walking is great for your health, but how can you get your steps in if you live in an area with high levels of air pollution? If you live in a city where the air pollution can put your health at risk, how can you get off the couch and get moving without putting your health at risk?
Poor air quality is unfortunately a problem for people in cities across the world. Over 80% of all cities exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) limits for safe air. While you may not be able to directly affect the air quality in your area, you can still take steps to walk more while protecting your health.
Use these 9 tips to protect your lungs while walking in poor air quality, including temporary periods of pollution like during rush hour traffic.
Poor air quality is actually very common!
In North America, more than four in 10 people live in areas with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle air pollution according to the American Lung Association’s The State of the Air® 2018 report. More than 7.7 million people live in 10 counties with unhealthful levels of all three listed air pollutants: ozone, short-term, and year-round particle pollution.
What happens when you breathe polluted air? Tiny, invisible particles of pollution penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. These pollutants are responsible for about one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer as well as one-quarter of deaths from heart attack.
Ground-level ozone, produced from the interaction of many different pollutants in sunlight, is also a cause of asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses.
What can you do?
If you happen to live in an area with higher pollution rates, how do you protect your lungs when walking outdoors? Here are some tips:
1) Avoid heavy traffic!
Walk on routes with fewer cars, if you can. If there’s any way you can walk in a park or on side streets, do it. This can help you avoid some of the traffic that’s spewing the emissions. Often walking in the morning or walking at night can help avoid traffic, but this may depend on when you actually get up or go to sleep! There may still be poor air quality in your area even when fewer cars are on the road, but some reduction in pollution levels is better than nothing.
2) Exercise at the right time!
Exercise later in the evening or early in the day – when air pollutants are usually lower. Avoiding times with the heaviest air pollution will help you breathe cleaner air. Try to avoid exercising at rush hour near busy streets or highways as well, as all of the cars idling tend to create additional pollution.
3) Exercise away from the street!
If you can, walk toward the inside of the sidewalk, so you’re not walking right next to the car exhaust fumes. Putting a little distance between yourself and direct air pollution can help reduce your bad air intake. Walking in a natural setting is also great for your mood and great for your health, so finding a park or less-trafficked area is a good idea anyway!
4) Burn calories, not things!
Avoid burning wood or trash for heating or disposal to avoid particulate pollution inside your house or yard. Although a crackling fire may produce a comforting feeling, it also releases particulate matter and a variety of harmful chemicals. Read more from the EPA on wood fires. Likewise, burning trash can spread air pollution from your yard into your house, or around the neighborhood.
5) Monitor your air!
Check local pollution levels before walking. Your city may release air pollution statistics that you can check in the morning before deciding on your routine. If not, consider using an app or website that predicts outdoor pollution. Plume Air Report and AirVisual are two free apps that can help to track pollution levels.
Increasingly, wearable devices that can test pollution in real-time are being developed. As these become cheaper and more available, consider investing in one if the pollution in your area is particularly bad.
6) Exercise inside:
On particularly bad days, it may be safer to avoid the outdoors altogether by walking inside in an air-conditioned environment. Make sure you’re exercising in an environment that is climate-controlled because a room with the windows open will simply let the polluted air into wherever you are.
There are many ways to do this. If you have access to a treadmill, that’s a great way to get your steps indoors. Not everyone has access to or wants to use a treadmill, but that’s fine! There are many creative ways to walk indoors – here are some ideas! You can also try doing an in-home cardio workout if there’s no suitable walking location nearby. If pollution levels are extremely high in your city, consider looking into getting a handheld pollution monitor to check pollution levels in your home. Take steps to improve air quality, like raising plants, investing in an air purifier, and sealing leaky windows or doors.
As the weather warms up, the pollution index can climb, so be aware of the possibility of increased pollution during summer.
7) Find an indoor walking path!
Don’t have a treadmill or gym membership? No problem! Find a large, indoor area where you can walk around. Although malls are closing throughout America, if you do still have a mall nearby it’s probably a great location to walk around in on weekends or after work.
Big box retailers, department stores or even supermarkets can be great walking options in a pinch. Or if you work at a big enough office building you might be able to walk around the lobby or up and down stairs for some extra steps.
8) Wear a protective mask or respirator
If the air pollution is extremely bad in your area or you’re particularly sensitive, consider buying a protective mask or respirator for when you can’t avoid pollution. A respirator will more thoroughly purify the air than a cloth mask, but will often be more expensive. Whatever mask you choose should form a tight seal around your nose and mouth.
Ideally, you’ll notice that the mask or respirator collapses slightly inward towards your mouth and nose while breathing in. This indicates that you’re actually breathing through the mask, and not through the gaps around your nose or chin.
9) Support the UN/WHO BreatheLife 2030 Campaign!
In May, the Pacer Pedometer app is supporting the UN/WHO’s BreatheLife 2030 Campaign. Join Pacer’s distance challenge, and try to walk 50km in May for BreatheLife! By walking or taking public transportation instead of driving in May, you’ll get more steps than ever and reduce air pollution in your city at the same time. It’s a win/win!
Check out the BreatheLife Challenges in the “Explore” tab of your Pacer Pedometer app.
For more information about the air pollution levels in your city and how to reduce your contribution and protect your family from its effects, please visit http://breathelife2030.org.
If you haven’t downloaded the Pacer app yet, download Pacer for free (on mobile)! You can also check out our website (mobile or desktop) or follow our blog for more great walking and healthy lifestyle tips.