The Effects of Air Pollution and Exercising Outdoors

While the effects of air pollution are well documented, when it comes to exercising outdoors, just how much does air pollution affect your workout?

We’re well into 2019 and it’s time to check in on your new years resolution of getting more active. Have you hit the gym or better yet the running path lately? This winter has been relatively mild which is a great sign for those who love to exercise outdoors. Chicago’s lakefront path continues to be full of bikers and runners, suited up to face the brisk wind off the lake.

An unfortunate challenge of outdoors exercising? Air pollution. While the negative health effects of air pollution are well documented, when mixed with exercising, there is often more to consider in terms of air pollution’s effect on the body’s health and wellness.

Deeper Breaths Means Increased Risks

While performing aerobic activities, you take deeper breaths which increases your exposure to air pollution. You’re most likely to breathe through your mouth during exercise which means any air you breathe in generally bypasses your nasal passages, which filters out airborne pollutants from entering your lungs. When these particles end up in the lungs, it causes inflammation and irritation. The risk for heart attack and stroke becomes a threat when these particles end up in the bloodstream, a possibility when not caught in the nasal passages.

Air pollution became a headlining topic at both the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, as levels of particulate matter were far above World Health Organization standards. While air quality concerns were hot topic conversations for the competing endurance athletes like marathon runners and cyclists, some experts didn’t think the two weeks of competition were going to be enough exposure to truly damage an athlete’s performance. Long term exposure has more significant effects on those regularly exercising in areas with high air pollution.


Different Effects on Different Bodies

Under an extensive study, researchers found that air pollution affected different participants in different ways. A blanket statement on how air pollution affects the body while exercising just wasn’t possible because different organ systems were affected in varying degrees.

The researchers gave the example that “the risks for harmful effects on the brain might be different from those on the cardiovascular system” and also depended on whether the participants were considered healthy or susceptible to certain diseases like asthma or heart disease.

Exercising Is Still the Healthier Choice

Despite these negative effects on your body when you exercise outdoors, there is some hope. In general, an active lifestyle is always going to be better for you than an inactive lifestyle.

In a study looking at the effects on air pollution and levels of activity of mice, it was found that when the active mice populations and nonactive mice populations were exposed to the same levels of air pollution, the active population developed a change that allowed their bodies to better protect themselves from pollution.

This research doesn’t hold much weight if it’s only tested with mice, but additional studies have been carried out do find that these results are not exclusive to one study, or to just mice:

“Yet another study was conducted at the University of British Columbia’s Environmental Physiology Lab. The research utilized two groups of individuals for seven straight weeks. The first group was made to cycle at various intensities while exposed to diesel engine exhaust. The second group, meanwhile, performed similar activity though in an environment with clean, filtered air. The results provide hope as the subjects made to cycle in polluted air appears to have adapted their bodies, and in fact showed signs of combating the harmful effects of pollution the way that the mice in the previous study did.”


Protecting Yourself

While it’s encouraging to learn that your body has a built-in mechanism for protecting itself, you should still be smart about exercising outdoors when exposed to air pollution. The following are a few tips to making sure you’re not sabotaging your outdoor workout because of poor air quality.

Do you exercise outdoors regularly? Have you considered changing your routine to account for air pollution?