by Sarah Gutenberg, BSc (Pharm), CRE, CTE
As committed running enthusiasts, we can all agree with Sting on the importance of “Every Breath You Take.” Having an efficient set of lungs is essential to supply oxygen to our circulatory system and muscles, and to enhance our individual performance over time. Unfortunately, we cannot always be sure that the air we breathe is clean and free of pollutants that may seriously impede our lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen.
The dangers of exercising in an environment with polluted air cannot be overstated. Studies have shown that regular repeated long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with increased mortality, usually with a higher incidence of lung cancer and pneumonia. Even healthy individuals may experience lung inflammation in response to a mild exposure to these pollutants, and these effects are compounded in periods of more intense exercise and higher outdoor temperatures.
Environment Canada, in conjunction with Health Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada, has implemented improvements to a widely accessible tool called the Air Quality Health Index, which measures and forecasts the quality of the air we breathe. The index is a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most serious pollution level. The parameters are as follows:
Index rating of 1 to 3: indicates a low health risk. At this low level, the population is able to enjoy their usual outdoor activities.
Index rating of 4 to 6: Indicates a moderate health risk to at risk population. At risk population includes those with asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, seniors and children. At these levels the at risk population should reduce intensity or reschedule their activities indoors if they experience coughing or throat irritation.
Index rating of 7 to 10: Indicates a high risk. At these levels the general population, including healthy runners, should also reduce intensity or reschedule their outdoor activities if they experience coughing or throat irritation.
Levels above 10 can occur on the scale and are usually associated with forest fires. At these levels, the general population should reschedule their outdoor activities.
By using the Air Quality Health Index, Canadians can be more aware of the potential risks associated with more intense exercise on a particular day and can modify their activity plans when air pollutants are high. For example, when a high index reading is in effect, runners can reduce the intensity of their outdoor run or move their workout to a time when the risk is lower.