Exercise in the city: could you be doing more harm than good?

Exercise in the city: Could you be doing more harm than good?


Dr Michael Koehle pollution studyHave you ever ridden your bike through downtown on your way to work? Taken a brisk walk outside your office over the lunch hour? If you live in an urban centre and enjoy exercising outdoors, you may have wondered if air pollution might be undoing the positive effects of your workout.

Usually a mixture of both gases and particles, the air pollution you could be breathing comes from diesel engines, forest fires, coal-fired power plants and even wind-blown dust and pollen. They might include gases such as carbon monoxide and ozone.

exercise in pollution tips

While air pollution can increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as shorten your life span, regular exercise, conversely, reduces the risk of conditions such as cancer and heart disease and may increase your overall life span.

Some studies have shown that regular physical exercise reduces the risk associated with air pollution exposure. Others have demonstrated a temporary worsening in lung function and cardiovascular function after exposure to air pollution during exercise. A recent study conducted at the UBC Environmental Physiology Laboratory looked at exercise intensity and air pollution. It found that the effects did not worsen when exercise efforts were intensified.

So what does this mean for the urban exerciser? Well, for starters, don’t stop exercising, even if you live in the city. The benefits of exercise still outweigh the effects of pollution; they’re helping you to live longer and meet your disease prevention goals. However, it is important to do what you can to minimize your pollution exposure while you exercise.

Photo credit: Brian Kladko/UBC Faculty of Medicine