Chander Kandpal did not go for his regular morning run on 8 November. Even by his standards, which are pretty low when it comes to Delhi’s air quality, that Thursday morning was “absolutely not suitable for a run."

“In an ideal world, we would run along the trails in a lush green forest but the reality is that we live in Delhi, which is one of the most polluted cities in the world," says Kandpal who was born and raised in Delhi and has been running for three years.

“This is the way we have been living. So I generally stay away from news, don’t worry about the AQI (Air Quality Index) and carry on with my runs. But the morning after Diwali was just miserable," says the 31-year-old ultrarunner who has a weekly mileage of about 120-140km. “I left home for my run but had to ditch it because I could smell the smoke and the gunpowder in the air."

Delhi’s air pollution, a mix of vehicular emissions and industrial and construction dust, intensifies in the winter months. Bursting of Diwali crackers and smoke from the burning of crop stubble in neighbouring states (particularly Punjab) creates a dangerous cocktail of noxious air. The Indian capital recorded its worst air quality this season on the morning after Diwali as residents continued bursting crackers beyond 10pm in a gross violation of a Supreme Court ruling mandating a two-hour window for the activity. The overall AQI in the city stood at 574 which falls in the “severe-plus emergency" category, according to data by the centre-run SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research). Some areas even recorded AQI of 999. The PM2.5 (air particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres) level was recorded at more than 400. India’s official permissible PM2.5 limit is 60 µgm-3 (micogram per cubic metre) while the World Health Organization sets 25 as its recommended average safe level.

Rakesh Singh, a marketing executive with a US firm, who moved to Delhi from his hometown Dehradun in 1999, has seen better days. “Even five-six years ago, I could go on a run without worrying about the pollution. But air quality in Delhi-NCR has gotten subsequently worse over the last few years, making it extremely difficult to do so," says Singh who moved to Gurugram in 2004.

Singh has also been participating in the Delhi Half Marathon for the last 11 years. The race is generally held in November, but it was advanced to 21 October this year to avoid the winter smog. Last year, the Indian Medical Association called for the cancellation of the race which was held on 19 November.

End of October-early November is when the winter season begins in north India and it is “ideally the best time to go out on group runs, exploring the city," says Singh.

But colder, stagnant air prevents particulate matter from rising and traps these substances near the ground. Physical exercise, especially intense runs, increases breathing rate. This, in turn, requires more air to be inhaled, making a participant more susceptible to air pollutants.

These days, Singh drives down to the Aravalis between Gurugram and Faridabad and runs along the trails there. “Sometimes, I carry my cycle along too. The Aravallis are one of the few places left in the city where the pollution is still bearable."

Once in a week, he goes for a run in Delhi’s diplomatic areas or between DLF phase 5 in Gurugram and Qutub Minar in Delhi. But that too is “not possible in these pollution conditions," says Singh.

Many others have moved their workout regimen indoors.

Rohan Gupta, a lawyer and a runner since 2015 who has participated in marathons and triathlons, says he is making do with home-training and swimming these days. “In the last couple of weeks, it’s been impossible to go out for a run. The mornings are hazy and you can actually smell the smoke in the air. So I have started working out at home," says Gupta. “I have equipment like bar bells, dumb-bells, bench-press and resistance bands at home. So I have turned my home into a gym. I also do a lot of yoga and bodyweight exercises. I also go for swims at Siri Fort."

Even Kandpal, who seems to have a higher tolerance for air pollution, has taken to yoga till the air gets better.

“You can’t help it. The PM2.5 level in the city is so bad right now—it is dangerous to even go out without precautions," says Kamal Chhikara, head coach and owner of the gym Reebok CrossFit Robust in Delhi’s Defence Colony. “I advice people in such conditions to move indoors and use air purifiers. People should also avoid high-intensity training and cardio that requires heavy breathing. Instead, they should focus on strength training like push-ups and squats and bodyweight exercises."

Dr. Vikas Maurya, head and senior consultant at the department of pulmonology, Fortis Hospital in west Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh, says the most important thing is to monitor the air you breathe. “Use masks, N95 onwards, use good quality air purifiers at home and office and in cars," he says. “Avoid outdoor physical activities and going out in the early mornings and late evenings. Keep plants like aloe vera around and eat food rich in antioxidants and vitamin C."

As the city continues to break air pollution records every year, the jury is out on whether exercising is actually detrimental to health during this period. Research has proven that the positive effects of physical exercise far outweigh the negative effects of poor conditions, including pollution. One such research in US in 2012, published in the journal Medicine And Science In Sports And Exercise, found “long-term aerobic exercise" having “protective effects" in mice exposed to diesel fuel fumes.

No such conclusive study exists for humans. Research conducted by the University of Copenhagen in 2015 found that exercise can outweigh harmful effects of air pollution. But last year, research led by scientists at Imperial College London and North Carolina’s Duke University found that “short-term exposure to traffic exhaust on a busy street can cancel out the positive effects a two-hour stroll on older adults’ heart and lungs". In the long-term, therefore, it would be better to have a back-up plan for running in the winter months, when air quality is at its worst.

Exercise with caution

Avoid early morning runs at all costs. Also avoid open areas and roads. Run, if at all, in areas with good green cover and during daytime. Also, use masks—for running and outdoor use.

Don’t leave home before checking the AQI in your area.

Do low intensity strength training that doesn’t require heavy breathing.

Move most of your activities indoors, and use air purifiers.

Eat food rich in antioxidants and vitamins C & E, such as citrus fruits and green leafy vegetables.

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