For people in most of the country, spring offers a cruel dilemma. The weather is gorgeous and you want to get outside to walk, run or ride your bike. But the air is bursting with pollen, which can mean itchy eyes, a runny nose, headaches and a host of other miserable allergy symptoms.

If you suffer from severe seasonal allergies, you may resign yourself to the idea that the gym or the treadmill in your guest room is your best bet.

"I really recommend that the worst-suffering patients avoid exercising outside on days the pollen count is extremely high," says Dr. Neeta Ogden, an allergist in New York and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

"Severe allergy sufferers or people with asthma have to accept that they're not going to be able to enjoy outdoor activities when it's beautiful outside."

But if your symptoms are relatively mild or you get some relief from allergy medications, you can exercise outdoors if you're smart about how you work out.

For starters, choose your exercise times wisely, suggests the ACAAI. Stay inside as much as you can during midmorning and early evening when pollen counts are at their peak. And avoid going outside on windy days. Instead, head outdoors very early in the day or very late at night when pollen counts are lower.

Wear sunglasses when you're outside to minimize the chance of pollen getting into your eyes.

Cut back on the intensity of your routine. When it's allergy season, pollen counts are never zero, so there's always something out there ready to irritate your lungs, eyes or throat. You may want to go for a walk instead of a run or alternate indoor exercises with your usual outdoor routine.

When you come back inside, change your clothes and take a shower. That way, you won't be toting pollen around with you through the house all day. (Do the same for your pet's paws after he comes back inside.)

On really high pollen count days, forego the great outdoors entirely, and workout inside. (Install a pollen count app on your phone so you know what you're up against.) Just remember that indoor exercising has risks too, points out WebMD. Make sure you're not breathing heavily on a treadmill that's in a damp, moldy basement or a dusty room with no circulation. It's ideal to be in a room with windows closed and the air conditioning running (with a clean filter).

Warmer air means pollution

Pollen isn't the only thing that can impact air quality for outdoor exercisers.

Typically, as temperatures start to warm up for summer, that also means that air quality gets worse. Ozone is often worst on hot days, especially in the afternoons and early evenings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Mark Zuckerberg runs in BeijingMark Zuckerberg stirred up some pollution talk during his 'smog jog' through Beijing. (Photo: Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently went running during a trip to Beijing. Because the city is facing hazardous air pollution levels, Zuckerberg's "smog jog" photo received a lot of attention.

The photo was posted at 10:30 a.m. The New York Times pointed out: "At 9 a.m. an air-quality monitor at the United States Embassy in Beijing calculated the level of PM2.5, ultrafine particles that damage respiration, at 305 micrograms per cubic meter. That level is deemed 'hazardous' under American air-quality standards."

Many of the responses to Zuckerberg's photo seemed to show sincere concern for his health, suggesting he was doing irreparable damage to his lungs.

But Ogden says that if Zuckerberg doesn't have pre-existing respiratory issues, it's likely that one morning jog in the smog won't do irreversible harm. But for people who already suffer from allergies, asthma or other chronic breathing issues, it's important to avoid outdoor activities when air quality is poor.

"People with existing allergies or existing respiratory conditions would be nuts to exercise on a day like that," she says.

But when air pollution levels are bad for a prolonged period, anyone can develop issues.

"Over time, pollution can be a problem for anyone," says Ogden.

The EPA suggests tips for exercising when air pollution levels are high:

  • Plan your most vigorous activities for early morning.
  • Exercise away from busy roads or industrial areas where particle pollution is higher.
  • Take it easier when you're outdoors to cut back on how much pollution you breathe. Go for a walk instead of a jog, for example, or exercise for 20 minutes instead of 30.
  • On hot, smoggy days when ozone levels are high, consider exercising inside.

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Is it OK to exercise outside when the air is bad?
If you have allergies, asthma or other breathing issues, do you have to exercise inside when air quality is bad?