Exercise can ‘outweigh harmful effects of air pollution’

Air pollution should not be perceived as a barrier to exercising in urban areas, new research carried out by the University of Copenhagen has found.

This, the researchers said, is despite the fact that physical activity amplifies respiratory intake and accumulation of air pollutants in the lungs, which may increase the harmful effects of air pollution during exercise.

Nevertheless, the study – published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives this week (March 30) – argues that the beneficial effects of exercise are more important for good health than the negative effects of air pollution with regards to premature mortality.

Lead author of the study and associate professor at the University’s Centre for Epidemiology and Screening, Zorana Jovanovic, said: “Even for those living in the most polluted areas of Copenhagen, it is healthier to go for a run, a walk or to cycle to work than it is to stay inactive.

She added: “Air pollution is often perceived as a barrier to exercise in urban areas. In the face of an increasing health burden due to rising physical inactivity and obesity in modern societies, our findings provide support for efforts in promoting exercise, even in urban areas with high pollution.

“However, we would still advise people to exercise and cycle in green areas, parks, woods, with low air pollution and away from busy roads, when possible.”

It is the first large-scale population-based research to examine the joint effects of physical activity and air pollution on mortality, and used data from a 1993 health study of 52,061 subjects aged between 50 and 65 years old from Aarhus and Copenhagen in Denmark.

This found that 5,500 participants died before 2010, but researchers observed that there were around 20% fewer deaths among those who exercised compared to those who did not – even for those living in the most polluted areas of the cities or close to busy roads.

Despite the findings however, Professor Jovanovic added: “It is also important to note that these results pertain to Denmark and sites with similar air pollution levels, and may not necessary be true in cities with several fold higher air pollution levels, as seen in other parts of the world.”

Related Links:

-Environmental Health Perspectives: ‘A Study of the Combined Effects of Physical Activity and Air Pollution on Mortality in Elderly Urban Residents: The Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Cohort’