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Working Out in Wildfire Season

How and where to safely exercise in smoky conditions.

Tips & Ideas Friday, August 27, 2021

Those of us who love the Colorado outdoors are perfectly willing to commit to skiing, running, biking, and hiking in harsh conditions—from subzero snowstorms to baking heat. It's all part of the silent sports lifestyle Nordic skiers enjoy year-round.

One of those conditions that interferes with our pre-season training is the constant burning of wildfires.

It's easy to see and feel the danger when a wildfire is bearing down on your home or town. What's more difficult is seeing and feeling the impact on your body when a fire rages elsewhere—miles, tens of miles, or even thousands of miles away.

"Wildfire has always been around, but it's growing, especially in the West," says John Volckens, professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University and the director of the Center for Energy Development and Health within CSU's Energy Institute. John Volckens has focused his engineering research on public health and air pollution's impact on human and environmental health. Fire, of course, creates air pollution, and whether there is a massive fire in California or a fire just outside of Estes Park, Northern Colorado residents are being exposed to fine particles in the air that can do serious damage.

"It's forecast to potentially double in severity in the next few decades," he says. "And by severity, I mean both the size and the frequency of wildfires."

In fact, Volken says experiencing a bad wildfire smoke day in Colorado is equivalent to being a one- or two-pack-a-day smoker

The potential health effects from wildfire are:

  • eye irritation
  • headache
  • runny nose
  • scratchy or sore throat
  • trouble breathing
  • shortness of breath

Children and the elderly are prone to more severe reactions from breathing in smoke from wildfires. Other susceptible groups include those with asthma, COPD, heart or lung diseases.

As the West gets drier, the public health impacts of wildfires will increase. That's why individuals need work to minimize these threats to their health.

How to Workout During Wildfire Days

Head for the hills.

Depending on the location of local and national fires, being out of the city can be a better option as you're not battling additional pollutants from cars and industry. The Nordic resorts you frequent in winter can be great options for biking, hiking, trail running, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities in cooler, cleaner air.

Check the weather forecast.

Air pollution tends to be at its highest on hot, sunny days, while the air tends to be cleaner after rainy or windy weather. If you have a pollen allergy, you may have more issues on days where pollen levels are high as pollen can interact with pollution. Check your local air quality forecast for more information.

Use an app.

You can monitor the conditions with your smartphone—for example, the AirVisual app by IQAir gives live air quality readings and short-term forecasts from outdoor monitoring stations operated by both government agencies and public health organizations to help you determine pollution levels.

Time your workout.

Air pollution levels tend to be highest near midday or in the afternoon, so try to avoid outdoor exercise during these times of the day.

Take it indoors.

Vary your routine with occasional indoor activities, especially on poor air quality days.

Tips for Minimizing the Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

Visit colorado.gov/airquality to learn about current air conditions and public health recommendations. When air quality is bad, you should also:

  • Close your windows and cycle the fan in your home furnace ("fan on" mode) or air conditioning system to help filter the air.
  • Install a high-efficiency filter in your home furnace or air conditioning. The filter should have a MERV rating of 13 or higher. Replace your home air filters every month during fire season.
  • Purchase a HEPA-certified portable air cleaner for your bedroom. Avoid electrostatic air cleaners, which make ozone.
  • Reduce your exposure. Do not exercise outdoors. If you need to be outdoors, get yourself a properly fitting N95 certified respirator.
  • Tell your local, state, and federal representatives that you support a national smoke forecast. Like a national weather forecast, this would help better predict where smoke is going, what communities it will impact, and who will need to take precautions.

It's hard to change a fitness routine that's dedicated to trail use and being outdoors, but with a little accommodation, you can stay on track with your fitness goals and still be ready for ski season.

Proudly funded by the Colorado Tourism Office