Asthma and the Olympics: Air Quality May Be A Major Obstacle

James Thompson, MD Health Pro
  • Olympic athletes go through years of training and physical conditioning in anticipation of competing against others that have the same goals: to bring home the gold medal. This year the summer Olympics in Beijing will present a few other challenges for its participants representing more than 200 nations. Heat, humidity and smog are expected to be at high levels throughout the games. Elite athletes know how to prepare for hot and humid weather conditions but some of them are worried about the impact of Beijing's air pollution on their performance.

    Which Olympians are at greatest risk?

    Poor air quality is bad for anyone engaged in several minutes to hours of rigorous physical activity because of the duration of the exposure to pollution, and the increased amount of deep breathing associated with intense exercise. Furthermore, extensive aerobic activity is usually associated with mouth breathing, which eliminates the filtering and conditioning activities of the nose. One in six Olympic athletes has exercise-induced asthma (EIA). High levels of smog will likely affect competitors that have EIA to a much greater degree. Imagine being able to overcome the challenges of exhausting workouts, detailed medication schedules and qualifying rounds of competition, only to fall victim to the choking and suffocating effect of smog.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    What is smog?
    The word "smog" was first used over a century ago to describe the haze that was generated by the combination of factory smoke and fog (smoke + fog = smog). The atmosphere is made up of a complex mixture of natural gases essential to support life on earth. Air pollution is any chemical, physical or biologic agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere (most often harmful to living organisms).

    The Air Quality Index (AQI) was created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor the quality of air based on the measure of five major pollutants:

    1) Particulate matter: Tiny particles that include dust, dirt, soot, aerosols and chemicals.
    2) Ground level ozone: Potentially harmful ozone formed by the sun's rays reacting with gas emissions from vehicles, factories and power plants. Ground level ozone accounts for more than 80% of urban smog.
    3) Carbon Monoxide: The main sources are motor vehicles and some factories.
    4) Sulfur oxides: Associated with the combustion of coal and oil.
    5) Nitrogen oxides: Gas emissions from tailpipes and smoke stacks from power plants- a component of ground level ozone.

    Air quality varies from one day to the next and even throughout the day. The AQI is reported in over 700 counties across America. Cities that have more than 350,000 residents must report the index for public review daily. Check to find the AQI for your area.


    What is being done to protect the athletes in Beijing this summer?
    China has spent billions of dollars to re-route traffic, shut down and relocate factories close to the games, and increase roof top gardens (to further reduce air pollution). Meteorologists in China have gone as far as "cloud seeding" to produce rain in order to wash the air of harmful pollutants.

  • Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    It should help, but athletes with lung conditions such as asthma must still be careful.

    Concerned about air quality in your outdoor environment?
    Here are five recommendations:

    1) Learn more about air quality and follow the AQI in your area. Here is an excellent site that provides index ranges and explanations (click on this link).

    2) Exercise indoors in air conditioned places during hot summer months when the AQI is high. The worst time of day to exercise outdoors when the AQI is high is early to late afternoon.

    3) If you must exercise or train outdoors when air quality is bad, consider modifying your routine. For example, do a fast-paced walk instead of running (this may reduce deep inhalation of pollutants) and shorten your workout time.

    4) Avoid running or exercising near or along streets and freeways. Parks or preserves would be more desirable for these activities.

    5) Monitor overall control of your asthma in between workouts to avoid having an increased risk of exercise-induced asthma.

    It's too bad that the delightful days of summer come with so many allergic (pollens, mold spores) and non-allergic outdoor triggers. The Olympians will persevere with appropriate adjustments and preparation. So can you!


    See also:

    Pollution will be challenge for Beijing Olympians

    Exercise Induced Asthma Is Just Another Challenge to Overcome

Published On: August 06, 2008