Is it Healthy to Exercise in Wildfire Smoke?

Living in this area, we already have a strong tendency to overdo exercise. As health care practitioners, we see overuse injuries all the time. And you know you don’t always give your body time to rest and recover after a big event or to heal after an injury. How likely are we to temper our exercise enthusiasm during wildfire smoke, and how necessary is it really?

Is exercising outdoors when it is smoky doing us more harm than good?

Good question. And a bit of a complicated one.

What is in wildfire smoke that is dangerous?

First, lets talk about the type of particles released from wildfires. Most specifically the particle called PM2.5 — fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.
The scary thing about PM2.5 particles is that they are easily breathed in, and once they hit our lungs they cause irritation and inflammation with sometimes serious repercussions.

Image Credit: Jen Burgess/IsolineStudios for BC Centre for Disease Control.

For most of us, we have mild symptoms such as:
• Itchy or watery eyes
• Sore throat
• Runny nose
• Mild cough
• Phlegm & mucus production
• Wheezing
• Headache

More serious symptoms can result such as:
• Shortness of breath
• Severe cough
• Dizziness
• Chest pain
• Heart palpitations

If you are experiencing these, get out of the smoke and please get medical attention if symptoms persists.

Children, the elderly and those with lung conditions are more affected by air quality and should be more careful to avoid exposure.

Children’s airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Source

How to Check Air Quality

Look at both the Air Quality Index (AQI) and specifically the PM2.5 measurement for your area. I use AirNow

Well, the Air Quality Index is not looking great, but I want to exercise. Consider these options:

Exercise indoors in a place with a good air filtration system, specifically with a HEPA filter.

Monitor the Air Quality and choose your time of day for exercise based on that.

Anecdotally, I notice less smoke here in the morning and like to get out then.

Do lower intensity exercise.

While doing strenuous exercise you breathe 10 times more air than while resting, thus increasing your exposure to these particles by 10 times. Less gasping for air equals less exposure. Source

Change your elevation.

Sometimes you can get above the smoke. Try a hike at the top of Teton Pass, off the Tram or your own high elevation favorite.  Keep in mind, it’s not always comforting to look down at the smoke below you.

Drink water and eat a diet that will help you combat the inflammation caused by the smoke.

Consider a respirator/ N95 mask.

If you work outside or for low intensity exercise, wear a respirator/ N95 mask. A well-fitted N95 can reduce PM2.5 exposure by 95% Personally, I can’t handle wearing one while running or biking, but despite the annoyance I can walk with one on. You can find them at the hardware store.

Dr Laura with N95 Respirator on a smoky day
Dr Laura sporting the N95 respirator on a smoky day

More harm than good exercising outside in wildfire smoke? Not necessarily.

Although this study was done in an urban area, measuring urban pollutants, the PM2.5 levels were considered, low intensity exercise, eg. commuting by bike or walking, seems to convey health benefits that outweigh the harm for healthy adults when the PM2.5 levels are under 95 μg/m3 and for lower concentrations, less than or equal to 22 μg/m3 the outlook is better.

“PM2.5 concentration (22 μg/m3) benefits of physical activity by far outweigh risks from air pollution even under the most extreme levels of active travel. In areas with PM2.5 concentrations of 100 μg/m3, harms would exceed benefits after 1 h 30 min of cycling per day or more than 10 h of walking per day.  For half an hour of cycling every day, the background PM2.5 concentration would need to be 95 μg/m3 to reach the tipping point.” Read the study

Bear in mind this study was done in urban areas with more pollution than wildfire smoke causing the increased PM2.5 and that they were commuting by bike, not charging up Ferrin’s or Putt-Putt.

The truth is we need more data to determine the risks vs benefits.

Want to be a citizen scientist and help contribute data to support research on the health impacts of wildfire smoke? Download the EPA’s Smoke Sense app. You can view air quality, see where fires are burning and report your smoke observations and health symptoms.

Thank you for reading. Play it safe out there!

Diet & Lifestyle Coaching

Are you ready to tackle some major changes in your life? Do you want to radically improve your diet, stress level, hormone balance, sleep or exercise routine? We offer one-on-one sessions, working with you to expand your knowledge and achieve your goals. Sit down with Dr. Laura Peterson in a quiet office to work through material and make sustainable healthy changes in your life. Four and six-week programs are available.

4 Week Program

  • One 15 minute “See if this is right for you” consultation in person or by phone
  • One initial 1 hour session
  • Three follow-up 1 hour sessions
  • Workbook with materials and calendar for tracking diet, stress, sleep and exercise.
  • Weekly tracking of weight, blood pressure, waist circumference, blood glucose and ketone level as applicable
  • Reference list for each topic including peer-reviewed scientific research and evidence-based books and readings

6 Week Program

  • One 15 minute “See if this is right for you” consultation in person or by phone
  • One initial 1 hour session
  • Five follow-up 1 hour sessions
  • Workbook with materials and calendar for tracking diet, stress, sleep and exercise.
  • Weekly measurement and tracking of weight, blood pressure, waist circumference, blood glucose and ketone levels as applicable
  • Reference list for each topic including peer-reviewed scientific research and evidence-based books and readings

Additional sessions and longer programs are also available.

Which challenges would you like to tackle?

Dietary changes

Would you like to explore the low-carb and keto diets?  Learn to how to do it safely and sustainably as well as avoid the common errors leading to electrolyte imbalance and keto flu.

Do you need to start an anti-inflammatory or auto-immune diet? Understand why and how to make important dietary changes to reduce your inflammation and start feeling better naturally.

Intermittent fasting -Learn why skipping meals isn’t a bad thing, and how it can help you lose or maintain your weight and improve various health markers such as insulin levels, human growth hormone and cellular repair.

Stress and hormone balance

We live in a fast-paced world with more distractions and to-dos than ever before, and this is wreaking havoc on our cortisol and other adrenal hormones. This in addition to our diet affects our sex hormones, often pushing women into estrogen dominance.  We will talk about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and how to allow ourselves to rest and digest, cortisol production and adrenal fatigue, and how to restore the estrogen and progesterone balance. 

Sleep

At least one-third of Americans are sleep-deprived.  Lack of sleep is associated with all kinds of negative effects- decreased immune system function, poor memory, decreased neuro and endocrine modulation, as well as moodiness and depression.  We will talk about what a good night’s sleep should look like and how to become a better sleeper.  Sleep is critical to your health and not something to be ignored or replaced.

Exercise

Exercise is proven to improve mood as well as brain function, cardiovascular health and bone density.  We will work through how to fit it into your schedule, and what type of exercises would be best for your health and most sustainable for your lifestyle.   We will create a plan for you to use exercise to combat stress, improve your health markers, and achieve your health goals.

Ready to get started?  Book your free consultation now.