The smog which enveloped the city in the first week of November made it look nothing less than the post-apocalyptic wasteland in the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster, The Matrix. The sky was scorched and the sun was imprisoned behind thick pockets of toxic smog, the air quality had taken a plunge and reached the ‘severe’ category.
It was during such a time, on November 1, two days after Diwali that 15-year-old Kanchan Kumar, a student of Ramjas School, fell unconscious during her high jump practise. Her teachers and coach sprinkled water and took her into the school’s medical room until her condition stabilised.
“I was palpitating and suddenly went into cold sweats. I don’t remember very clearly what happened after that,” she said.
Kumar has been an athlete who has been representing her school in various school and national level competitions. When her parents took her to a local clinic in the evening for consultation, they were told that she got a minor blackout because of exposure to the toxic smog.
“I was given a few anti-allergic tablets and asked to either practise indoors or refrain from it till the situation outside is better,” Kumar said.
If you think that playing sports, exercising and getting some ‘fresh’ air can guarantee you a healthy body and mind, then you might be in for a rude shock. The soaring pollution levels in Delhi’s air put sportspersons and outdoor exercise freaks at a greater risk than a regular resident, health experts said.
Cough: dry and persistent cough Eye allergy: irritable and watery eyes
Skin allergy: itchy skin, rashes and flaky skin
Fatigue: feeling mostly drained out
Infections: susceptible to frequent seasonal bacterial and viral infections
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder: reduced lung capacity, lung damage
Cardiovascular diseases: increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure
Stroke: blocked or ruptured blood vessels sending supply to the brain
Pneumonia: inflamed bronchial lung passages Organ damage: kidney, liver involved
Behavioural problems: irritability, mood swings, anxiety and depression
Infertility: low sperm count, recurrent miscarriages
- Do not go out for a jog on foggy winter mornings or during late evenings
- Avoid high-intensity exercises in the open as deep breathing will mean packing in larger volume of air that can lead to lung damage even with relatively low levels of pollution
- Prefer gym over parks on days when pollution levels are high
- Use an N95/99 mask when jogging in the open
- Avoid areas with high-traffic density
For twenty eight-year-old Himanshu Saini, a state level cricketer, however, these high pollution days were not just the inconvenience that a regular Delhiite faced, it cost him a week of practise before his match, which was scheduled for November 8, but was cancelled because of poor air quality.
“We have been preparing for this match for over three months now. Though we continued some form of physical exercise during these days too inside the gym but everyone was tensed for the match. We were lucky that it got postponed otherwise we could have lost,” Saini said.
He said that the match, against Gujarat, was cancelled after the Gujarat state authorities wrote a letter to the organisers requesting them to change the schedule because of the high pollution levels. They were concerned that exposure to such dangerous levels of pollution might be harmful to their players.
“They were perturbed by pollution here. It made me laugh because what about the players from here? Where could we go? We had practised this whole time in this gas chamber,” he said.
The same worry had gripped several sportspersons and enthusiasts in the city.
Twenty five-year-old Varuneema Bhatnagar, a management professional at a private company in Gurgaon, ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) on November 20. Though the skies had cleared by then and the levels of particulate matter in the air had shown marginal improvement, the runners were in constant worry of the effect of pollution on their health.
“For at least two weeks I was climbing up and down the stairs of my five storey building because running outside would mean suicide. I was not even sure if I could run in the marathon,” said Bhatnagar.
Bhatnagar said that she had purchased a mask after listening to the news of the air pollution in the city even on the day of the run, but running with the mask on was a cumbersome task.
“I do not know how I managed to finish the race but I think finishing under such circumstances was an achievement in itself,” she said, showing her finishers’ medal.
Several participants complained that they had written several letters to the organisers of the event to postpone the run to a later date because of the unhealthy levels of pollution but that did not happen.
“When you exercise, you breathe faster and deeper. When you are running outdoors, the amount of contaminated air that goes into your lungs is going to be higher. It is not advisable to run or play any kind of sport, especially in the early mornings and late evenings, when the level of pollutants in the air is at its highest,” Dr GC Khilnani, professor, department of pulmonary medicine, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said.
Khilani also said that a mask seldom helps sportspersons. Because of the sweat, the masks get damp and a wet mask does not filter the pollutants.
“An N95/99 can help in the case of virus attacks like swine flu, they are not easy to wear or breathe through. While running or exerting, your lungs are already making an extra effort and the mask is only going to make it tougher to run. That said, even a handkerchief can stop at least some of the pollutants from entering your system,” he explained.
Tennis coach, Mark Lain, said that practising in such conditions severely affects the performance of the player because they do not get the desired intake of oxygen.
“When the brain doesn’t get the required quantity of oxygen it becomes an inflammatory irritant. It narrows the airway, so the athlete or the player is going to struggle to breathe in more oxygen, the volume is reduced. In such cases many players rely on a dilator to unblock the airways to breathe properly,” Lain said.
Another important aspect is that since these sportspersons are out for practice for as long as eight to 10 hours their chances of catching pollution related infections, such as eye inflammation and respiratory problems, are much higher.
So what can they do to protect themselves?
Experts said that it would be best to avoid outdoor practise sessions during day during poor air quality days. However, if that is not possible then practise should be done under the supervision of your coach of doctor.
Practise should also be avoided during early morning and evening hours, because the pollution levels are at its peak during these hours. In the first week of November, according to Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) data, the highest recordable pollution levels in a 24-hour period were recorded between 4am and 9.30am. The concentration starts settling down post 11am.
Masks can be worn during warm ups, to get acclimatised to the conditions outside. These can also be put on between sessions, if there is a problem in breathing.