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Go for a Run or Avoid It? What’s the Healthier Option Amid Delhi Pollution Spike

Exercising outdoors in severe air pollution can do more harm due to the increased exposure to pollutants.

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Fit
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Go for a Run or Avoid It? What’s the Healthier Option Amid Delhi Pollution Spike
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After seven months of consistently practising yoga, Sakshi Singh, a 23-year-old PR professional based in Delhi, had to pause her daily exercise plans thanks to the deteriorating air quality in the national capital region.

In November 2023, Delhi’s AQI on most days has been in the ‘severe’ category.

Singh, who used to practise yoga on her terrace, tells FIT,

“Just walking around Delhi, I feel like I'm choking. How can I do yoga in this air when I have to take deep breaths for the different asanas?”
Sakshi Singh

Nitika Dayal, a corporate executive from Delhi, too has had to indefinitely suspend her outdoor exercise regimen because of the smog.

But Singh and Dayal are not alone. A 2021 study, titled Air Pollution, Physical Activity and Health: A Mapping Review of the Evidence, states:

"Physical activity levels may decrease during high air pollution episodes or may prevent people from engaging in physical activity overall in highly polluted environments."

So what is it that fitness enthusiasts, regular joggers, or even those who drag themselves for their weekly-staying-sane walks (not me, cough cough) can do now that it's too polluted to even breathe outside? FIT asked experts.

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Go for a Run or Avoid It? What Experts Suggest We Do

Dr Pratibha Dogra, Senior Consultant - Pulmonology and Sleep Medicine, at Gurugram’s Marengo Asia Hospital, strongly recommends against exercising outdoors in the toxic air.

"We need to find a proper resolution to the pollution issue. For now, it's only precautions that people have to take individually."

Dr Tushar Tayal, Lead Consultant, Department of Internal Medicine, CK Birla Hospital, Gurugram, agrees. Here's what both of them suggest:

  • Switch to exercising indoors for a few months.

  • If you do want to exercise outdoors, avoid going out in the morning when it’s cold because that is when the pollution is at its maximum.

  • Children, older people, pregnant women, and people with comorbidities should avoid stepping out early in the morning too.

  • Get an air purifier if you can afford it.

Since "indoor exercising" is quite the blanket phrase, FIT asked Coach Kay from Bangalore's KaysFIT Academy to suggest some specific exercises that people could try out. According to Coach Kay, here are some exercises that beginners and those with experience can try alike.

Those who have equipment at home:

  • Walking or running on a treadmill

  • Rowing

  • Indoor cycling

Equipment-free exercises:

  • On the spot running

  • On the spot jogging

  • Yoga

  • Squats

  • Lunges

  • Pull-ups

  • Aerobics

  • Hops

  • Skip rope

  • Box jumping

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Exercising Outdoors in Polluted Air: Why It's Harmful

But why exactly is training in polluted air harmful?

Dr Dogra explains that when someone is exercising, the total amount of air that we inhale increases.

“When you’re exercising, your body takes up and needs more oxygen so you take deep breaths. Because of this, the volume of air inhaled increases, as does your exposure to pollutants like PM2.5 and PM10.”
Dr Pratibha Dogra

To put it simply, Dr Dogra adds, “If just standing outside in this poor AQI is like smoking 10 cigarettes, exercising outside would be equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes.”

And the risks that accompany inhaling this polluted air are of serious concern too.

Dr Tayal says that as opposed to popular belief, pollution can impact not just your respiratory organs but your overall immune system too.

He adds that if we continue to exercise outdoors in peak pollution, there could be both short-term and long-term impacts on our health.

The short-term impacts could include:

  • Inflammation and irritation in the lungs and throat

  • Watering in the eyes

  • Headaches

The long-term impacts, on the other hand, could be severe, says Dr Tayal.

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

  • Asthma

  • Bronchitis

  • Heart attacks or strokes

  • Cancer

  • Lower level of good cholesterol

“Even if you don’t have any underlying lung conditions, but you’re exposed to pollutants because of exercising outdoors, you might be at an increased risk of developing asthma.”
Dr Pratibha Dogra

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