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Freak-Out Fridays: Will Running Next to a Highway Hurt My Lungs?

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Welcome back to Freak-Out Fridays, where health experts weigh in on just how worried you should be about health threats in the modern world. Struggling with your own quandary? Send it to freakoutfridays@marthastewart.com.

Q: I jog along a path that's next to a highway. Will breathing in the pollution damage my lungs?

A: Running is great cardiovascular exercise, but unfortunately, doing it along a heavily trafficked freeway might be tough on your lungs. A growing body of research shows that highway corridors have unhealthy pollution levels thanks to vehicle emissions (even when the air in the rest of the community is fine). For example, a 2010 study by the Health Effects Institute concluded that traffic pollution leads to asthma attacks in children, and may have a wide range of other effects including the onset of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, and potential worsening of cardiovascular diseases.

Another study found that long-term exposure to traffic air pollution may increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a common lung disease. Chronic bronchitis is just one form of COPD that runners are at risk of developing by working out too close to I-80 (pr 405, LIE, Country Rd. Q...). In short, I recommend finding another running path—one that's farther from a freeway.

Here are a few things runners can do to lessen the impact of air pollution:

  1. Give car-clogged roadways some space. Avoid exercising outside within 300-500 meters (about 325 to 550 yards) of a major highway.
  2. Work out inside when pollution levels are high. You can check your air quality here. On days when the air quality is code orange or worse, you should skip long outdoor workouts—whether they're near the freeway or not.
  3. Download a free air quality app. The American Lung Association has a smartphone app call The State of Air that uses your phone's geo-locator technology to provide current and next-day air quality conditions. The app pushes out alerts if local air quality is code orange or worse and, depending on the severity of the day’s air pollution, provides health recommendations.

Norman H. Edelman, M.D., is a lung health expert.  In addition to serving as the American Lung Association’s chief medical officer for 25 years, he also conducts patient care, research, and teaching as a professor of Preventive Medicine and Internal Medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

—reporting by Nina Lincoff

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