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With air quality hovering at the unhealthy range, Spokane weighs its exercise options

August 17, 2018

The question hung as heavily as the air over Spokane on Thursday:

Should I run outside or stay indoors?

Is it better to settle for something less on the treadmill, or take my chances and perhaps let something worse settle in my lungs?

The answer: It depends.

For the third day in a row, Spokane’s Air Quality Index was suspended in the 150s range – a gray zone for anyone contemplating strenuous outdoor activity.

Most public agencies – from health districts to schools and parks – have established an index of 150 as the dividing line for allowing outdoor activities.

At 149 or below, all is well. Any higher means pool closures, indoor practices for sports teams and tough choices for everyone else who prefers to play outdoors.

And with more of the same warm weather expected through next week, every warmup will begin with a check of the AQI.

Dr. Bob Lutz, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District and an avid runner, understands the dilemma.

“You tell yourself, ‘I want to get out and do stuff,’ but with these kinds of numbers … we say that’s going to be a concern for at-risk groups,” Lutz said.

“For others, I wouldn’t say that you can’t do it – you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Lutz, referring to long-term effects of strenuous exercise in the haze.

That didn’t bother Heidi McAdams, who was running briskly past the pond at Manito Park.

“I’m going by how I feel,” said McAdams, a Tacoma resident and marathoner who was visiting her pregnant daughter. “Yesterday I didn’t go out, but today I’m testing the waters, and it will have an effect on what I do tomorrow.”

The rest of the family – including a husband with breathing problems – remained indoors. But after two days of inactivity, that was too long for McAdams.

After suffering from depression for 25 years, she discovered the joys of running and other lifestyle changes.

“I get so much joy from endorphins,” said McAdams, who is training for the 21-mile Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Run on October.

Seconds later, McAdams passed Spokane resident Micah Dunlap near the Japanese Garden.

“I just want to get my run in, and it doesn’t seem too bad,” said Dunlap, who said he checks the Air Quality Index every morning.

“It hasn’t bothered me yet,” said Dunlap, who know knows that winter will be here soon enough.

“We have such limited time outside,” she said.

That’s also true for families – several were gathered Thursday morning at the Manito playgrounds – but that’s where Lutz draws a sharper line.

“Children breathe more rapidly and their systems are still developing, so I would strongly encourage parents to reconsider taking their kids to the park in these conditions,” Lutz said.

Likewise, Lutz hopes that family members and neighbors are aware that seniors and others with medical issues may need help.

“Perhaps running errands, or just checking on them from time to time,” Lutz suggested.

For everyone else, “I just encourage them to be cautious,” Lutz said. “If you can limit outdoor activities and go indoors, I would encourage that.”

That’s a tough sell for sports teams. With the high school and college football seasons only two weeks away, teams are heading indoors or out of town.

On Monday, the Eastern Washington University football team fled hazy Cheney for clearer skies in Pullman.

The Eagles were back the rest of the week. Meanwhile, Whitworth opened fall camp outdoors on Sunday, then practiced indoors for three days before traveling to Colfax on Thursday afternoon.

High schools in the Greater Spokane League are bound by strict adherence to the 150 mark. On Wednesday night, the Gonzaga Prep football team got in one hour of outdoor work before the AQI crept up too high and forced the Bullpups indoors.

High readings downtown also affected teams in Mead, where the AQI was in the 120s and 130s on Wednesday and Thursday. By GSL rules, if one team is forced indoors, so are the others.

Perhaps the most strenuous event of the month, the Spokane to Sandpoint Relay, begins on Friday. The 200-mile event was still a go as of Thursday afternoon.

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