Most people who don’t exercise blame it on lack of time, tiredness or air pollution, little realising that physical activity boosts energy levels, improves sleep and lowers chronic tiredness even if the air is far from clean.
The many benefits of moderately-intense physical activity are clinically proven. Walking at least 10,000 steps a day or burning 700-1,000 calories a week through improves mood and lowers stress, and reduces the risk of depression, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer, particularly breast and colon cancers.
To optimise the health benefits, a combination of aerobic activity, strength training and balance exercises is recommended, with the intensity depending on your fitness levels and age. In cold weather, outdoor activity is best done during the warmer part of the day when the sun is out and the air quality is better.
Exercising to build muscle strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness is good for you most of the time, but it’s best to give it a break if you are recuperating from an illness, or if you develop a sudden sharp pain or dizziness while working out.
It’s okay to take it easy when:
It’s polluted: If the air pollution levels are high, as they are across most parts of north India, don’t exercise outdoors if the air quality index (AQI) is 300 or more and the air does your body more damage than good. While exercising, we not only inhale more amounts of air but also breathe in through the mouth, which leads to air pollutants bypassing the filtration system of the nose and going straight into the airways and lungs, leading to coughing, frequent infections and over time, lung damage. Download an AQI monitoring app on your smartphone to check the pollution levels in your neighbourhood or city before venturing out.
Studies show that most commercially-available face masks, including internationally-certified ones, do not offer enough protection against particulate matter and black carbon because of poor facial fits, so unless you have one that fits snugly over your nose and mouth, exercise indoors.
You have fever: While exercising with a common cold is not detrimental to health, avoid exerting yourself if you have fever. Apart from pushing up your resting heart rate and making you dehydrated, fever could be a sign of respiratory infection, which can compromise your lung capacity and cause wheezing even in people who don’t have asthma.
You risk an asthma attack: People with well-controlled asthma can exercise as much and as long as the next person, but they must always keep an inhaler handy. Sudden exposure to cold can constrict airways and make it difficult to breathe or induce an attack, as can asthma triggers like dust and pollen. Those with exercise-induced asthma should opt for low-to-moderate intensity activity, such as brisk walking and swimming.
You have sudden pain: Some amount of muscle-ache is normal after strenuous exercise, but stop the moment you experience sudden pain as it can aggravate an injury. Seek medical attention to rule out injury. If muscle pain is dull and persists for more than 24 hours, give the muscle groups a rest to promote healing.
You have a cold, headache or sore throat: Mild to moderate exercise can help ease the symptoms of common cold by opening up the nasal passages to relieve a stuffy nose or minor sore throat, but stop if the you also have fever, chest congestion or a hacking cough.
You’re exercising after a long break: Fitness levels drop rapidly in as little as two to three weeks, so if you have been away for longer than a week, begin with reduced intensity and gradually increase it over the next few weeks.