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Air Pollution and Exercise

By: the American Lung Association


Millions of Americans live in areas where the air carries not only life-giving oxygen, but also noxious pollutants that reach unhealthful levels, such as ozone, carbon monoxide, fine particles, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, or lead.

Exercise makes us more vulnerable to health damage from these pollutants. We breathe more air during exercise or strenuous work. We draw air more deeply into the lungs. And when we exercise heavily, we breathe mostly through the mouth, bypassing the body's first line of defense against pollution, the nose.


Our lungs are among the body's primary points of contact with the outside world. We may drink two liters of liquid each day. We breathe in an estimated 15,000 liters of air, approximately 6 to 10 liters every minute, drawing life-giving oxygen across 600 to 900 square feet of surface area in tiny sacs inside the lung.
Oxygen is necessary for our muscles to function. In fact, the purpose of exercise training is to improve the body's ability to deliver oxygen. As a result, when we exercise, we may increase our intake of air by as much as ten times our level at rest.

An endurance athlete can process as much as twenty times the normal intake. Mouth breathing during exercise bypasses the nasal passages, the body's natural air filter. These facts mean that when we exercise in polluted air, we increase our contact with the pollutants, and increase our vulnerability to health damage.

The interaction between air pollution and exercise is so strong that health scientists typically use exercising volunteers in their research.


The news isn't all bad. You can minimize your exposure to air pollution by being aware of pollution and by following some simple guidelines: If you live in an area susceptible to air pollution, here's what you should do:

  • Do train early in the day or in the evening.
  • Do avoid midday or afternoon exercise, and avoid strenuous outdoor work, if possible, when ozone smog or other pollution levels are high.
  • Do avoid congested streets and rush hour traffic; pollution levels can be high up to 50 feet from the roadway.
  • Do make sure teachers, coaches and recreation officials know about air pollution and act accordingly.
  • Most important, do be aware of the quality of the air you breathe!
  • Don't do the following:
  • Don't take air pollution lightly, it can hurt all of us!
  • Don't engage in strenuous outdoor activity when local officials issue health warnings.


For more information about your local air quality, call your local air pollution control agency, or visit the US Environmental Protection Agency AirNow website at