Running is awesome. But is air pollution ruining the high?

Today, the Star introduces Q&Ache, a bi-weekly column addressing readers’ health and wellness questions. This week: just how bad is a smog-filled run?

For me, running’s like church — a sanctuary where I can feel my heart beat and lose my thoughts to anything.

Though, usually not pollution.

But to fellow cardio-addict Nick Williams, 29, dirty air is often on his mind — at least two or three times a week during his 13-kilometre runs through the city, sometimes during rush hour traffic. Williams, a communications specialist who recently moved downtown from the suburbs, spends a lot of time in running shoes passing behind cars and “trying to avoid but still inhaling some exhaust,” he said.

Concerned, he asked the Star to find out whether urban running, through Toronto’s congested core, will affect his lung health long term.

“Should I stick to running indoors in well-ventilated gyms?” he asked. “I would hate it if my efforts to be healthy are actually doing the opposite!!

It’s a well-founded worry.

Connie Choy, air quality co-ordinator for The Lung Association Ontario, said air pollution has been linked to hospital admissions and premature deaths.

Studies connect it to a laundry list of ailments, experts say, including appendicitis, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, increased respiratory illness in children who live close to major roadways and even weight gain.

One study suggests air pollution affects changes in cyclists’ heart rates immediately after a jaunt through traffic. Still more studies link long-term exposure of fine particulate matter — tiny particles, say from car exhaust — to diabetes.

Williams isn’t kidding when he said that on hotter days he can “taste the smog.”

Peter Murphy, an environmental engineering masters student, and Cuilian Fang, a research assistant at the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research, test the air quality at Sugar Beach in Toronto.
Peter Murphy, an environmental engineering masters student, and Cuilian Fang, a research assistant at the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research, test the air quality at Sugar Beach in Toronto.  (Anne Marie Jackson / The Toronto Star)  

The bad news is that no one knows if there’s a “safe level” of pollution, said John Molot, a physician focused on evaluating and treating patients with environmentally linked conditions. What we do know, he said, is that the more dirty air we breathe, the more likely we are to develop chronic disease.

Thankfully, Toronto isn’t like certain areas in China, Choy says, where, on some days, she’s heard the mere act of inhaling has been likened to smoking a pack of cigarette a day. But while local air quality has improved in the last decade or so, according to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, this city is still a metropolis overflowing with chemical-spewing companies and cars. Not to mention, our air quality is affected by the wind and policies south of the border (the U.S. still burns coal that wafts into our airspace, Choy said).

In terms of running indoors or out, the easy answer is check The Air Quality Index (AQHI) and use common sense.

The AQHI rates the air’s risk to health on a scale from 1 to 10 — 1 being “ideal” for outdoor activity and 10 indicating the air’s awful (Toronto has never had a 10 day).

Children, the elderly and those suffering from chronic illness may want to consider reducing exertion outdoors if the air quality is 4 or higher, the scale indicates. Or, if they’re already experiencing symptoms, such as coughing or wheezing.

Healthy specimens, like Williams, may not immediately feel the effects of dirty air at a 4. Still, it’s probably not a great idea to do a lot of quick breathing around cars, experts say. Exhaust teems with microscopic particles that can be absorbed into your cells and cause damage.

However, running indoors on a treadmill isn’t exactly a panacea. “Well ventilated is a relative term,” Molot said.

Just like human lungs, buildings suck in air from the outside — so, you may want to reconsider a gym near a busy highway. And inside air can be a stew of cleaners and personal care products, such as deodorant, Molot said.

The best place to run — surprise, surprise — is through undisturbed countryside with lots of green leaves to purify the breeze, Molot said. When that’s not an option, a park is the next best thing (as long as it’s not near a busy highway!).

The gym falls somewhere between busy roadway and city park. It’s also best to run in the early mornings or late evenings, Choy said, when fewer cars are on the road. Wintertime and just after a rainfall, when the air tends to be cleaner, are good, too.

The best way to combat chronic disease — from pollution or otherwise — is to follow Williams’ lead and run (or work out) whether in the country, through the city or in a gym, Molot said.

“The bottom line is that aerobic exercise trumps everything,” he said. “It really comes down to: do your exercise, choose your poison.”

Got a question for this column? Email mhenry@thestar.caDo you have a question about health, nutrition, fitness or being well that you can’t resolve with a Google search? Michele Henry might be able to help. Send your questions to mhenry@thestar.ca and she’ll find an expert who can answer.

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