Exercising outside. A breath of fresh air?

Exercising outside. A breath of fresh air?

Getting outdoors in the fresh air is one of the best things you can do to lift your spirits and boost your health - or is it? Take a deep breath and read on...

A new study by the World Health Organisation shows that more than 90% of people living in European cities are breathing air which can lead to respiratory problems, heart disease, asthma and shorter lives. According to one health official, air pollution across the UK “probably causes more deaths than passive smoking, traffic accidents or obesity”, with a 2010 report saying our dirty air causes more than 50,000 deaths each year.

So while health officials encourage us to walk and cycle as much as we can, what are the effects of the outdoor air we are breathing in?

Air pollution

It is a growing problem in the UK. Despite positive advice urging us all to get more active, the quality of the air we are inhaling outdoors is questionable. Running or cycling along a road with busy traffic and you will be exposing yourself to a cocktail of fumes. London, for example, has the worst air in the whole of Europe. The so called ‘smog’ is made up of a potent mixture of particles, fumes and ground-level ozone which builds in still weather conditions. The smallest particles are the most dangerous as they can be deeply inhaled into the lungs.

Athletes who exercise outdoors are believed to be at particular risk of air pollution. Pollution is thought to raise the heart rate by several beats as the body tried to cope with the polluted air. At the London Olympics there was concern about the smog affecting athletes’ performance or even risking their health. The official advice to those wanting to exercise outdoors in high-risk cities such as London, Nottingham York, Brighton and Bristol is to avoid strenuous physical activity on days with high pollution levels, particularly if you suffer from asthma, diabetes or other chronic conditions.

However, is the advice to avoid strenuous activity correct?

Exercise at high intensity in high pollution areas

Although it’s generally agreed that breathing in clean air is preferable to dirty air, recent Canadian research suggests that polluted air appears to have a more negative effect on breathing at low intensity than high intensity. In other words, you may actually be better off running fast than jogging gently. The theory for this is because heavier breathing helps us to speed polluted particles past irritant receptors in airways without actually triggering them, before they’ve had chance to get a grip inside us.

There is also a new finding that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of exercise may outweigh the oxidative damage associated with air pollution. Balancing out the health benefits of regular exercise against the effects of air pollution is an interesting challenge.

Ironically, it is by walking and cycling more that you can help to decrease air pollution. The most important source of pollution in the UK is via cars so when you choose your transport bear this fact in mind.

It’s appears to be a question of trade-offs. Exercise in polluted air or not at all? Commute by bike or add to the traffic by sitting in your car? Whatever the risks, you would be prudent to keep exercising but perhaps taking small steps to minimise the effects of pollution.   

How to minimise the effects of pollution during exercise

  • Change location. The highest levels of pollution in the UK are in cities, particularly within 15 metres of busy roads. Think about changing where you exercise to quieter routes away from heavy traffic. 
  • Change time. The air tends to be cleaner earlier in the day so try to avoid the evening rush hour.
  • Check real-time air pollution levels. Defra’s website allows you to check air-quality conditions where you are.
  • Stop if you’re wheezy. The most important thing is to stop if breathing becomes difficult, or if you’re coughing more. This is particularly important if you’re asthmatic or doing any low-intensity exercise.  
  • Raise the intensity.  As discussed above, pushing yourself harder may actually minimise the effects of air-pollution. If you really want to go for a run outdoors during rush hour – run faster!
  • Exercise indoors. Air conditioned gyms offer a good alternative to exercising outdoors. As well as avoiding traffic fumes, air conditioning systems also make exercising much more pleasant and therefore most gyms choose to install it. Systems works by reducing humidity, temperature and therefore reducing stickiness. Many systems also include a filtration system which purifies the air. This reduces dirt, pollen, mites and pet fur, helping with allergies and breathing conditions. All UK gyms are also legally bound to have a certain number of air changes each day, which means clean air is regularly replenished.



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