If you have allergies, you might feel like outdoor exercise detracts from your health more than it adds. Exercise is supposed to make you feel good. But if a quick jog or a bike ride leaves you wheezing, sneezing, and feeling miserable for hours afterwards, how healthy can it be?
But all of us -- allergic or not -- need to exercise regularly for our overall health. And the good news is that you can, even if you're exposed to outdoor allergens.
"People with allergies and asthma should be able to exercise outdoors, just like anyone else," says Pramod S. Kelkar MD, chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology's Cough Task Force. "As long as they're getting treatment and taking precautions, they really shouldn't have to restrict their activity very much."
The key to exercising outdoors with allergies is to be prepared. Here's a quick checklist of things that any athlete with allergies should know.
Allergy Tip: Check your calendar.
Pollen seasons are predictable, although they might vary by a few days from year to year. So if you know that you're allergic to ragweed, oak, or other outdoor allergens, find out when the season starts in your area. Once you know, you can prepare. You can start taking your medicine before the pollen flies -- and you can anticipate problems by practicing the other tips below.
Allergy Tip: Check the weather. Information about your local pollen level is available on the Internet or in your local paper. If pollen counts are supposed to be particularly high on a given day, you can play it safe by staying inside. In general, pollen counts are highest on warm and breezy mornings and low on cool and rainy days.
You should also pay attention to the levels of ozone and other pollutants, since they're common irritants for people with allergies. Exhaust from cars and trucks can also cause problems for people with allergies, especially if you live in a city or exercise along a busy road.
Pollutants alone aren't the only problem. "The diesel particles emitted by cars and trucks can attach to allergens like pollen," says Jay M. Portnoy MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI.) "There's now some evidence that this can make the allergens even more potent and harmful." Again, on days with especially high pollution levels, you could take a pass on your usual exercise outdoors.
Allergy Tip: Choose the right time of day. According to many experts, the time of day you choose for outdoor exercise matters. "If you can, exercise in the morning or late in the evening," says Portnoy. "Most pollens reach peak levels around noon or early afternoon." However, Portnoy cautions that during pollen season, the count is never zero, no matter what time of day. So be cautious.
Others are less sure that the time of day really makes much difference. "The studies supporting that haven't been very good," says Hugh H. Windom MD, associate clinical professor of immunology at the University of South Florida. "I think it's more of an old wives' tale."
Allergy Tip: Sometimes, opt for less intense activities. If the pollen count or pollution levels are high, skip your usual jog or bike ride and choose a less intense form of exercise. Why? The more stressful the exercise, the faster you breathe; the faster you breathe, the more allergens and irritants you inhale. So instead, do stretching exercises, or yoga, or weight training. Any of them will give you a workout without increasing your risk of allergy symptoms.
Allergy Tip: Bundle up in the cold. Cold weather is a common irritant for people with sensitive airways and allergies. So if you're exercising outdoors on a cold day, cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to help warm the air before it gets into your lungs.
Allergy Tip: Protect your eyes and lungs. To block pollen and other irritants from getting into your system during outdoor exercise, some people exercise with a mask or bandanna over their nose and mouth. Another trick is to wear goggles to protect your eyes from irritation from allergens.
Of course, some might balk at the idea of exercising outdoors with goggles and a mask on. It's unlikely to go over well on the playground.
"I don't think it's feasible to ask a kid to play outside with a mask on," says Jonathan A. Bernstein MD, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati. "It will probably just make him neurotic." But if you're an adult and feel that protection helps -- and you can withstand the looks of passers-by -- it's not a bad idea.
Allergy Tip: Change your clothes and shower after outdoor exercise. During pollen season, your clothing and hair could be covered with pollen. So when you get home, it's not a bad idea to strip off your clothes and toss them in the laundry. You could also take a shower to rinse off any allergen left on your skin or in your hair.
Windom does caution that this will have limited benefit. "If you've been outside, breathing in the pollen for half an hour, it's already deposited all over your nasal membranes and worked its way to the cellular level," Windom tells WebMD. "So washing off your gym shorts isn't going to have a huge effect on your symptoms." But this practice isn't only for your benefit -- it also protects other family members who might have allergies.
Allergy Tip: On bad days, exercise indoors. Most of the time, exercising outdoors should be OK. But sometimes, when pollen counts or ozone levels are high, or the weather is so cold that it irritates your lungs, exercising indoors can be a good temporary solution.
Just remember that indoor exercise has its own allergy risks. In fact, huffing and puffing on a treadmill down in a dank and dusty basement could expose you to more allergens or irritants than you'd encounter outdoors. So make sure your exercise equipment is set up in an area that is clean and mold-free. If possible -- and seasonally appropriate -- use an air conditioner to provide ventilation without letting in pollen and other outdoor allergens and irritants.
Allergy Treatment With Medicine
Controlling your exposure to allergens during outdoor exercise can help, but it might not be enough to prevent allergy symptoms. For many people with allergies, prevention goes hand in hand with medicine.
"We really have very little control over our exposure to outdoor allergens," says Kelkar. "So while taking precautions is fine, I put more stress on allergy treatment with medicines."
Ask your doctor how you should use your medicine before outdoor exercise. For instance, you'll probably want to take antihistamines and allergy treatment at least an hour before you start working out. Nasal steroid sprays need even longer -- about a day -- before they fully take effect. Your doctor will likely recommend that you take your medicine daily for the duration of the allergy season.
The important thing is not to limit your life because of allergy symptoms. Too many people allow their allergies to whittle away their lives. They used to love taking hikes, or golfing with friends, or playing tag with their kids in the yard. But now they sit inside for a whole season of the year -- or more -- homebound by their allergies. It doesn't have to be that way.
"Don't suffer with allergy symptoms," says Windom. "Don't sniffle and sneeze your life away. See an allergist and get treatment."