Exercising Safely During Wildfires

August 26th, 2020

Exercising during wildfires can be bad for your health, read on to find out how to do it more safely.

A large percentage of my patients live very active lifestyles, and here in Colorado it is not unusual for the majority of that activity to take place outdoors. Unfortunately due to drier conditions we find ourselves in the midst of one of the largest fire seasons on record, and with that comes smoke–like a lot of smoke. 

While the haze can make for dramatic sunrises/sets, our lungs are not necessarily a huge fan of all the particulate matter that are making up larger proportions of the air we are breathing at any given moment. This stuff can lead to irritation of your airways, as well as trouble with oxygenating your blood. It can cause symptoms like breathing difficulty, a scratchy throat and hoarse voice, burning or itchy eyes, cough, dark colored mucus; and changes in your mental state including restlessness, agitation, confusion, and sleepiness. Not good things. 

Reporters from the Denver Post recently spoke with a pulmonologist from National Jewish Health by the name of Dr. Anthony Gerber, who had the following to say about the health impacts from the wildfire smoke:

“In people who are otherwise healthy, we don’t think that those symptoms translate to significant long-term health consequences,” Gerber said. “In people who do have pre-existing lung disease, or are older, or very young, we’re more concerned. To some extent, this is based on the level of the air pollution.

“Right now, we have moderately unhealthy air,” Gerber said on Friday afternoon. “For the kind of air quality we’re having now, where you can smell it in the air and your visibility is down to a few miles, we encourage the sensitive groups to not exercise outside. Those are people with asthma, other forms of lung disease, the elderly, the very young and pregnant women.”

While it is good to know that he expects that any ill-health effects associated with the smoke will be temporary, It seems that the best course of action, particularly if you fall into one of the risk groups is to limit outdoor activity based on how bad the air quality is at any given moment. 

Based on some additional research, using the current Air Quality Index (AQI) is a great way to determine whether or not you should be exercising outside–or how you should limit activity if you choose to do so. This link will provide real-time up to date reports of the air quality in Denver and should help guide you towards making the appropriate decision. Additionally, you can check out this chart from the EPA to see what the expected impacts on health are at each level.

To reduce exposure during exercise even on bad AQI days, it is typically best to get your activity in earlier in the day. It can be helpful to avoid exercising outdoors during peak traffic times as well. If the AQI is soaring and you need to get a workout in, consider keeping it indoors, and consider purchasing an air purifier for your home to help reduce circulating irritants in the air you breathe most. 

One final note is that neck gaiters and paper masks are fairly ineffective for filtering out smoke particles, so don’t count on them for that. On the other hand, surgical masks, cotton masks, or N95 or better respirators do seem to be effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, so please continue to rely on them for that.

Until next time, be well. 

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