If your area is being impacted by the bush smoke you might be wondering if it’s safe to exercise. It’s important to know that smoky air doesn’t just reduce visibility or add a burnt smell to the air, it also reduces the quality of air your body receives; and even if you live hundreds of kilometres away from a bushfire, your health can still be impacted by the smoke.

Of course, if there is some smoke in the air this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t exercise at all – but you should check the local air quality reports just before you exercise, so you’ll know if you should change your workout plans.


Should you exercise today?
See our guide to staying safe and fit when air quality is poor


How does air pollution affect us when we exercise?

Air pollution, of any kind, is detrimental to our health because it puts us at greater risk of absorbing pollutants such as toxins, dust and smoke.

The problem with exercising while your local area is affected by smoke is that exercise makes us breathe more, in order to deliver more oxygen to our body. This is normally a good thing but, if the air is smoky, more oxygen also means you’ll be getting more of those tiny smoke particles too. Exercising in smoky conditions also means you’ll breathe more deeply, and you’ll be far more likely to absorb more of this polluted air compared to when you’re at rest. This risk is even higher if you choose to exercise outdoors while it’s still smoky.

Common fire smoke irritation/allergy symptoms

According to the NSW Government Department of Health, symptoms of smoke irritation include:

  • Itchy/burning eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Throat irritation
  • Cough

How to maintain your fitness and limit your exposure to air pollution.

When the air quality is so bad that outdoor workouts aren’t on the cards, it’s still possible to maintain your fitness by exercising indoors – just make sure your exercise room is well-ventilated and that you’re paying attention to how your body is responding.

  1. Check out this table showing recommended activity levels when the air is smoky
  2. If the air quality is particularly bad, it might be safer to skip the cardio and try these low-impact exercises instead.

If you are already sensitive to air pollution or suffer from respiratory conditions or asthma, you should be particularly mindful of the current air quality in your local area, and follow your treatment plan accordingly. If in doubt, please stay safe and seek advice from a medical professional.


How do I know if there’s too much smoke to exercise?

Some people may be more sensitive to bushfire smoke and air pollution than others. Sensitive groups include:

  • people with lung disease or heart disease
  • people with asthma or other respiratory conditions
  • children
  • older adults
  • pregnant women

If the air is a little bit smoky and you aren’t in one of these smoke sensitive groups, you may still be OK to exercise in moderation. Of course, if the air quality outside isn’t great, you might want to stay indoors and exercise with the windows closed and the air conditioner (or an air purifier) running and switched to circulation mode.

If you don’t have a well-ventilated workout space at home, it might be best to avoid high impact exercises and try a lower impact workout instead.

Should you exercise outdoors when it’s smoky outside?

  • If the air is classified as ‘very poor’ or ‘hazardous’ (that’s anything over 150 on the AQI) you should not exercise outdoors.
  • If the air quality is very poor, you can exercise indoors if your space is well ventilated and, of course, you should always monitor your symptoms and take breaks if necessary.

A low impact workout can be a great option for smoky days, as it will avoid putting extra stress on your lungs.

Is running in smoke bad for you?

If you are outdoors, it is not advised to go running in smoky conditions. Smoke contains carbon monoxide and pollutants that can cause a number of health issues. Particles from smoke are small and they can get deep into your lungs causing a number of health problems. The air quality can also impact your indoor workouts, so it might be advisable not to strain your lungs which are already under stress whether you feel it or not.

If you want to keep active but don’t want to risk exercising outdoors, it is best to do low impact exercise indoors. You can still be impacted by reduced air quality even when running inside and therefore should avoid overexertion through vigorous exercise. Always check the current air quality levels before you exercise, just to be safe.

We breathe deeper and faster when we run, so running during smoky conditions increases our exposure to the smoke as well as other potentially harmful pollutants in the air.

Best exercises when the air quality is moderate or poor

If you’re in any doubt as to the quality of the air in your local area, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and stay indoors.

If you aren’t in a high-risk group and you aren’t sensitive to smoke, then you should be able to exercise normally if the air quality is of moderate or poor quality. If the air is poor, you might want to skip the cardio and do low impact exercises until the air quality improves.

If you experience ANY symptoms of smoke irritation, stop your workout immediately.

Best low-impact exercises to stay fit when bush smoke is affecting your area

Here’s a great workout routine for anyone who wants to stay indoors and stay fit when the air quality is poor outside. But, first, check the latest air quality report in your local area. If you have the all-clear, these at-home exercises will help you stay fit even when air pollution is affecting your area.

Squats

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Your toes, knees and hips should all be facing forward.
  • Bend your knees and push your hips backwards as if you were going to sit on a chair.
  • Make sure you keep the weight on the heels of your feet.
  • Return to a standing position.

Static Lunge (with left leg forward)

  • Lunge forward with your left leg, and try to bend your back knee to the floor
  • Focus on getting a 90-degree angle in both legs, and make sure your front knee doesn’t push too front forward over your toes
  • Do your best to hold the pose for a minute

Static Lunge (with right leg forward)

  • Lunge forward with your right leg, and try to bend your back knee to the floor
  • Focus on getting a 90-degree angle in both legs, and make sure your front knee doesn’t push too front forward over your toes
  • Do your best to hold the pose for a minute

Push-ups  (you can do these on your knees if you prefer)

  • Keep your back straight and make sure your hips and chest are going up and down as one.
  • Breathe in on the way down and breathe out on the way up.

Plank

  • Make sure your body is flat, from heels to head.
  • Squeeze your glutes for an extra tough challenge.

Wall Squat

  • Lean against the wall with your shoulders relaxed and your head in contact with the wall.
  • This one is all about right angles, so make sure your knees and hips at 90 degrees at all times.

Sit-Ups

  • Place your fingertips on your temples or gently swing to create momentum
    (to avoid putting a strain on your neck it might be best to avoid placing your hands behind your head).
  • Work for 40 seconds and rest for 20 seconds in between exercises.
  • Do 2-4 rounds depending on how you feel, and stay aware of your breathing and overall health.

If you are already sensitive to air pollution or suffer from respiratory conditions or asthma, you should be particularly mindful of the current air quality in your local area, and follow your treatment plan accordingly. If in doubt, please stay safe and seek advice from a medical professional.

Do air conditioners filter out smoke?

The quick answer is no, not usually. According to the NSW Department of Health, most household air conditioners do not filter fine particles that are present in bushfire smoke. Commercial air conditions, however, like those found in popular indoor venues like cinemas and shopping centres, are better at filtering fine particles so it is a good idea to spend time in these kinds of venues to reduce your exposure to smoke particles.

How effective are air purifiers at cleaning smoke from the air?

Air purifiers with a high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter are able to reduce the number of fine particles indoors. For an indoor air purifier to work well, the purifier must be matched to the size of the room it is in and the room must be well sealed. People should ensure these conditions are met if they look to purchase an air purifier.

What should I look for if I want to purchase a good quality air purifier?

When choosing an air purifier you should look at its Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR). The CADR is an industry-standard that measures the volume of air that can be cleaned by the air purifier. It is measured in cubic metres per hour so the bigger the CADR number, the better.

If you are wanting to buy an air purifier for home, but are unsure of which one to purchase, the Choice reviews website has a useful guide.

How to check the local air quality during bushfire season (before you exercise)

  1. Check the local air quality index (AQI) in your area
  2. If the AQI is under 66 (or if the visibility of local landmarks is 20km or more)
    • You should be fine to enjoy normal activities
  3. If the AQI is more than 66 (or if the visibility is reduced to under 20km)
    • It might not be advisable to undertake vigorous exercise today.
    • Please refer to the activity guidelines from the NSW DPIE and EPA Victoria based on the air quality of your local area, or, just check out their guides below!
Air Quality Index (AQI) Colour ​indicator What activities can I do?
0-33 Very good Enjoy normal activities.
34-66 Good Enjoy normal activities.
67-99 Fair People unusually sensitive to air pollution should reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities. Others are not likely to be affected when the AQI is in this range.
100-149 Poor Sensitive groups should reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities. Other adults are not likely to be affected when the AQI is in this range.
150-199 Very Poor Sensitive groups should avoid strenuous outdoor activities. Other adults should reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities.
200+ Hazardous Sensitive groups should avoid all outdoor activities. Other adults should avoid strenuous outdoor activities.

Source: NSW DPIE

What if you don’t have access to the air quality index?

You can follow the guide below from EPA Victoria to help you visually judge the air quality before you exercise.

You can judge the severity of the smoke by how well you can see nearby landmarks. When there’s smoke in the air objects in the distance become harder to see. That means you can tell how bad the smoke is by what you can and can’t see.

Recommended activity levels based on visibility, air health category and your personal smoke sensitivity

How far is the furthest visible landmark from you? Air health category EPA’s recommendation for your exercise and activity levels
About 20 km Good It’s a good day to be outside.
About 10 km Moderate It’s okay to be outside but watch for changes in the air quality around you.
About 5 km Poor People sensitive to air pollution should reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity. Other adults can carry out their normal activities.
About 1.5 km Very poor Sensitive groups should avoid physical activity outdoors. Everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity.
Less than 1.5 km Hazardous If you’re in a high-risk group sensitive to smoke you should stay indoors if you can, and keep physical activity levels as low as possible. Everyone else should avoid all outdoor physical activity.

Source: EPA Victoria: Smoke And Your Health

Posted by Sam Wood

Father and husband, on a mission to help people move more, eat better and make a positive change to their lives. Sam Wood has over 20 years experience as a personal trainer and is recognised as one of Australia’s leading experts and media commentators in the health & fitness industry. Sam is the founder and personal trainer of 28, Australia’s #1 home fitness and nutrition program, and he's also the proud owner of Australia’s largest personal training studio, The Woodshed, based in Brighton, Melbourne.