Impacts of wildfires on physical activity

I write this blog article during an important forest fire in British Columbia (Canada), occurring during an extreme heat wave in the same geographical area. The last Lancet report on health and climate change called it : the ‘converging crises’ (1). Climate projections indicate wildfires will increase in frequency and intensity in the U.S, Canada, Australia, Russia… What are the effects of wildfires on physical activity patterns ?

Cruz et al examined the effects of bushfires on accelerometer measured physical activity among exposed and control children (245 vs 344, 8-10 years, Australia) (2). Additionally, they modelized the association between Air Quality Index (AQI) and moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in exposed children (with sub analyses for sex and socioeconomic status). Authors collected PA data for their multi-center interventional study, and the bushfires occurred between the end of intervention and first follow-up measures. Children were classified as affected by bushfires if they were exposed to AQI >100 for 3 consecutive days, and their school received targeted advice to avoid outdoor Pas. Their statistical analyses were well-adapted and sophisticated.

Children’s physical activity was not strongly influenced by the presence of smoke during bushfires. Findings were similar for MVPA, VPA, MPA during or outside school hours or after the inclusion of temperature as covariable. During the school time, an AQI of 1 standard deviation increase was associated with a decrease of 2 and 0.6 daily minutes for MPA and VPA, respectively. The curvilinear models suggested that AQI >737 (AQI > 200 = ‘hazardous’) was associated with a drastic MVPA reduction among exposed children. This ‘tipping point’ was not different for children with living in family with low or high socioeconomic background.

Authors suggested that the relative stable PA level during the wildfire episode may be explained by a possible PA indoor practices or family/teachers might not follow the Australian Education Department recommendation about outdoor PA restrictions. Consequently, the children might have been exposed to high level of air pollution.

A US study examined the association between four AQI classes (ranged from moderate to hazardous air quality) and daily number of steps (measured with fitbit) among adults living in California during 2017-2018 wildfire seasons (N > 1000) (3). A significant 18% reduction in daily step count was found when the AQI exceeded 200 compared with AQIs < 100. Similar results were observed after multivariable adjustment, but sex was missing among the covariables.

Finally, another PA characteristic has been examined: active travel in urban context. Doubleday et al. (4) used the bicycle and pedestrian counters data in Seattle (Washington state) to examine the effects of wildfire smoke events. They compared daily bicycle and pedestrian counts across 3 periods, 20 days before wildfires, during wildfire (>3 consecutive days with PM2.5 >15), and 20 days after.

A significant decrease of active travel frequency was observed during the second and larger of two wildfire smoke events (2018, see figure). Findings also showed a slow return to pre-wildfire smoke event physical activity levels in some areas.

This significant PA decrease could be observed only for 2018 because wildfire smoke events were more intense, but also by an improvement of risk reduction messages dissemination by local authorities.



  • 1. Watts N, Amann M, Arnell N, Ayeb-Karlsson S, Beagley J, Belesova K, et al. The 2020 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: responding to converging crises. The Lancet. 2021 Jan;397(10269):129–70.
  • 2. del Pozo Cruz B, Hartwig TB, Sanders T, Noetel M, Parker P, Antczak D, et al. The effects of the Australian bushfires on physical activity in children. Environment International. 2021 Jan 1;146:106214.
  • 3. Rosenthal DG, Vittinghoff E, Tison GH, Pletcher MJ, Olgin JE, Grandis DJ, et al. Assessment of Accelerometer-Based Physical Activity During the 2017-2018 California Wildfire Seasons. JAMA Network Open. 2020 Sep 30;3(9):e2018116.
  • 4. Doubleday A, Choe Y, Busch Isaksen TM, Errett NA. Urban bike and pedestrian activity impacts from wildfire smoke events in Seattle, WA. Journal of Transport & Health. 2021 Jun;21:101033.

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