NSW Bushfires: Is it safe to exercise in poor air quality?

Key Points

  • Avoid vigorous or prolonged exercise (>30min) in an Air quality index (AQI) of 201-300 for healthy individuals and 101-150 for sensitive individuals.
  • Improve air quality by exercising indoors.
  • The benefits of exercise outweigh the potential risks of bush fire pollutants.


Improved weather, daylight savings, new years resolutions. Summer is normally an inviting time for Australians to exercise. However with an horrific fire season still in full force, this proves a barrier to exercise that not many know how to approach.

Air pollutants that affect the respiratory system include particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Exposure to high levels of pollutants can cause acute respiratory exacerbations. There is even some evidence, although non conclusive, that prolonged exposure to air pollutants may increase your risk of COPD, lung cancer and respiratory allergies.

Bushfire smoke in particular, is the main pollutant affecting the east coast of Australia. Smoke contains carbon monoxide (CO), O3 and PM 2.5 (fine particles <2.5micrometers in diameter). These pollutants can irritate deep into the lung irritating the alveoli and impairing lung function. High PM2.5 levels have been found to impair exercise performance (2).

Exercise Guidelines

So is it safe to exercise? We know that exercising in polluted air has some negative effects on our respiratory and cardiovascular system(3). We also see performance deterioration in both maximal and submaximal exercise levels (2,4). However, these studies are performed in conditions of terrible air quality. It is safe to perform exercise in polluted air as long as it is within reasonable levels. If air pollution is quite bad (like that in less developed countries), sometimes the health risks may be too high. Although there are still benefits of doing smaller duration exercise in these conditions, such as 15mins (5). Health authorities have released general guidelines that advise on what to do depending on the air quality index (AQI). You can search your area to get real time information on the air quality.

retrieved from health NSW December 30, 2019

Healthy Adults

  • It is safe in the short term to exercise in an AQI of up to 200
  • Avoid heavy exertion or strenuous exercise in an AQI >200, consider moving exercise indoors as a safety measure
  • avoid exercising completely in an AQI >300, keep activity low and stay indoors

Sensitive Individuals

Sensitive individuals are people with heart or lung disease (including asthma), older adults, children, teenagers and people with poor tolerance to allergens should follow these guidelines:

  • It is safe in the short term to exercise in an AQI of up to 100.
    Note: if you are sensitive to pollutants, exercise indoors.
  • people with asthma should follow their action plan and keep quick relief medicine on hand.
  • people with heart disease should monitor for symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath or unusual fatigue. If you experience any of the following contact your healthcare provider.
  • Avoid heavy exertion or strenuous exercise in an AQI 100-150, exercise indoors as a safety measure.
  • avoid exercising completely in an AQI >200, keep activity low and stay indoors

Exercise Tips For Smokey Areas

  • Exercise Inside
    An air conditioned gym or your home is the perfect place to exercise out of the smokey conditions.
  • Pick Your Times
    Pick the right time to exercise by looking at the current AQI in your area.
  • Take it Easy
    Enjoy some lighter exercise such as swimming, cycling or even yoga. It is the holiday season after all.

Final Thoughts

Do not let these poor air conditions get in the way of your health goals this summer. The evidence is clear that the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of air pollution caused by bushfires, provided that you try reduce your exposure to pollutants (2,5). Be smart, know your limitations and consult with your GP or an exercise professional before undertaking any new exercise.


Disclaimer: This information provided, is not to be considered medical advice. Participate in exercise at your own risk and consult a healthcare professional if you are concerned about your health.

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