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Run with Mark, but only if the AQI is lower than your IQ

Under the Dome

I have always been a big believer in training outdoors all year round. I have had my fair share of strange looks sprinting and burpee-ing outdoors in the middle of December. But I persist. Training outdoors is a great reminder to yourself that you don’t need a gym membership or even any equipment to be in shape. Outdoor workouts are also a great way to address the ‘nature deficit’ which I believe a lot of us suffer from living in an urban jungle like Beijing. And they are also fun. After a few sessions running on grass with the sun shining above you and the wind in your face, returning to the treadmill is indescribably boring. And yet the question must be asked—how safe is it to exercise outdoors when the air quality gets Beijing-winter bad?

Frankly, it isn’t very safe. No matter how robust you may consider your respiratory system to be, if you regularly breathe in significant amounts of pollutants, you are placing your lungs and overall health at risk. On days when the Air Quality Index is above one hundred, which has unfortunately been the case quite regularly of late, I don’t advocate outdoor training or doing anything strenuous outdoors. The body has its natural defences—nostril hairs are designed to safeguard against infiltration and infection of the airways in our lungs, but they can only cope up to a point. Moreover, heavy breathing during exercise is usually fed through the mouth.

If you have to carry out outdoor activity on a heavily polluted day, wearing a good mask is essential. But one thing you will notice when wearing a mask is how difficult it becomes getting oxygen quickly enough to your body. Exercising with a mask, though arguably better than doing nothing at all, puts a significant cap on intensity and performance which ultimately conflicts with the goal of improving your fitness.

Obviously, there is always the indoor option. But don’t assume just because you are behind walls that you are ok. In reality, only a minority of fitness centres and sports facilities have air filtration systems which are good enough to protect you on heavy smog days. Invest in your own Laser Egg or other portable air quality measurement device so you know what you’re breathing before you start your workouts. If your gym doesn’t take air quality seriously, demand a refund. After all, what is the purpose of a gym if not to help improve your health?

Air quality is reportedly the single most important reason given for foreigners wanting to leave Beijing. If you are staying to battle it out and still want to be in good health, you need a fitness plan which takes account of the air situation. This is how mine looks: On good days, get out there and fill your lungs to bursting. On bad days, train only at home or in locations where you are sure the air is clean.

How do you use your body in your fitness routine? What do you want to see me write about?

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