Is it dangerous to exercise on badly polluted days?

Photo by Cui Meng/GT

Air pollution is a concern for residents of many cities in China, and can be particularly inconvenient if you exercise regularly.


What do we mean by ‘air pollution’?

On polluted days, the air is filled with higher levels of harmful PM 2.5 particles – those are the ones small enough to get into your bloodstream - as well as increased volume of gases like nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, plus heavy metals and other things that, basically, are not good for you. 

People experience a wide range of different symptoms in response to heavily polluted days. You may not notice anything at all, but you have existing conditions like asthma or other respiratory issues, or skin conditions, you may have particularly adverse reactions. Others may notice anything from coughing and finding it harder to breathe to having a sore throat, or feeling tired or lacking in concentration. 

Exercising on a particularly polluted day isn’t going to kill you, but if you typically experience symptoms in response to pollution, exercise is likely to bring them on more severely. Basically, it’s best not to exercise when pollution levels are high.


What’s a ‘high’ AQI?

First things first – grab your smartphone and download an app for measuring AQI. The PM 2.5 AQI is measured in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). The lower the number, the better the quality; 0-50 is ‘good’, 51-100 is ‘moderate’, 101-150 is ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’, 151-200 is ‘unhealthy’ period, 201-300 is ‘very unhealthy’ and 301+ is ‘hazardous’. Anything above 500 is ‘off scale’ – and such weather is not unknown in Beijing and Shanghai at all.

If the AQI is over 200, exercising is very much discouraged. If the AQI is over 300, try to avoid even going outdoors (of course, the AQI indoors will still be high, even if it’s not as high as outdoors). Many local sports clubs and schools will cancel sporting activities on days when AQI rises above 300.

For some perspective on these values, when London’s air quality reached 150 in 2014, as a result of Saharan sands blowing over and affecting air quality, it was regarded as a crisis by the media. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says that when it comes to PM 2.5, ideally the AQI should not go above 25.


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