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?
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.
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