Getting Cardio When the Air Quality is Bad

Those midsummer blood-red sunsets in Spokane carry bittersweet beauty — they’re usually a sign of high levels of fine smoke or dust particles. During those times, and throughout the summer, experts recommend checking the air quality when planning an outdoor workout. Skipping workouts during the hot summer months isn’t the answer. Poor air quality can increase the risk of health problems that, in turn, exercise helps prevent, so it’s worth figuring out how to get in that cardio sesh.

Not only do we inhale more air while exercising, but we’re also more likely to breathe through the mouth, which means fine particulates bypass the natural air filter of the nasal passage. Those particles can cause long-term damage to the heart and lungs.

In Spokane, those fine particles come primarily from wood burning, motor vehicles and diesel engines and a small amount from commercial and industrial operations. Ground-level ozone (the main ingredient in smog) also peaks during the summer months – it is formed photo-chemically when vapors from vehicle refueling and commercial and consumer products like paints and solvents react in the heat and sunlight. Fine particles and ground-level ozone are monitored and concentrations are converted to a user-friendly scale called the Air Quality Index. The AQI has color-coded categories ranging from “good” to “hazardous.” The AQI is updated hourly at

Heidi Peterson has that link on speed-dial. As an athletic trainer for North Central High School’s athletes, she refers to the air quality before each practice and adjusts workouts if necessary. “Last year when [the AQI value] was at its peak was right when we started with high school sports,” she says. “We were monitoring the air quality. That’s the most important thing: to know what the air quality is on a given day.” Students with asthma or other respiratory problems did indoor workouts, while students with healthy lungs did abbreviated versions of their regular outdoor workouts on days with more moderate pollution levels. Most school sports events and practices are postponed when the AQI is in the orange category (101-150).

According to the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, an orange category AQI of 101-150 is considered unhealthy for some, and rigorous outdoor activity may worsen conditions. For those with concerns or questions about their health, checking with a healthcare provide is the best bet before exercising outdoors whenever the AQI is higher than the moderate level (51-100). During last summer’s wildfires, the Spokane area had five “red” days where the air quality was considered unhealthy for everyone.

Working out during rush hour can also mean exposure to more vehicle emissions. To avoid everyday pollution, avoid roads, urban areas, and outdoor smoking areas, says Dr. Edward Laskowski, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. People with existing medical concerns including asthma, diabetes, heart or lung conditions, or lower respiratory disease should take extra care to avoid inhaling polluted air.

“If you already have an issue, your threshold should be lower. You definitely want to be in filtered air, which is inside,” says Peterson. Taking aerobic classes at a fitness center, running on the treadmill, using the stair climber or even doing repetitions of the staircase at work can substitute for a regular outdoor workout, she says. When the air quality is good, exercising outdoors is still the best option unless health conditions require extra caution. “Nothing replicates the actual movement that you’re going to be doing [in a race],” Peterson says. “If you’re doing a trail race, you need to train on trails.”

Air Quality Resources

Alternatives for Outdoor Workouts

When the sky is looking particularly apocalyptic, try these alternatives to your regular outdoor workout.

  1. Same workout, but shorter. Heidi Peterson, athletic trainer at North Central High School, reduces student athletes’ hour-long workout to 45 minutes when the AQI is at a level that puts any students at risk.
  2. Hit the gym. The treadmill has its perks: Blast Missy Elliot or your favorite podcast without the safety concerns of blocking out noise during an outdoor run. Mixing up a treadmill run with stair climber intervals will work a few of those muscles you’d be feeling after a hilly run.
  3. Take a class. Indoor cardio is slightly less miserable with friends. Sign up for a spin class — or work those glutes like never before at barre class.
  4. Get thrifty. Joining a gym might not be worth it if you generally prefer to play outside. Find a torturous set of stairs at work, school, or a nearby office complex. Spend that gym sign-up fee money on an indoor bike trainer and catch up on Game of Thrones while you spin your wheels. Save on exercise class fees by inviting a buddy to do workout videos with you in your living room. //

Erika Prins Simonds stays healthy by running and playing pick-up team sports. She writes our Everyday Cyclist column. You can find more of her writing at

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