Traffic fumes in cities can wipe out the benefits of exercise

london bus
Van de Pol / Unsplash

  • A study has shown that walking around heavily polluted
    areas could reduce the positive impacts of exercise.
  • It concludes that over-60s and those with lung and
    heart problems should steer clear of urban areas with heavy

It’s no secret that cities are some of the most polluted places
on Earth. In fact, Oxford Street and other roads in London
famously often surpass their legal
pollution limit just a few days into the year.

But it can be difficult to think about what the pollution is
doing to our health with so many other things to worry about.
Many of us might think everything will be fine if we are healthy
in other parts of our life, like eating well and exercising

Unfortunately, for some people, this is not true. According to a
new study, published in The Lancet, some
people who take walks around city streets could be putting their
health at risk.

The researchers from Imperial College London and Duke University
in the USA recruited 119 people for the study who were either
healthy, had stable heart disease, or stable chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (COPD) — a type of lung disease.

The participants were randomly assigned to walk around either
Oxford Street or Hyde Park. Then, a few weeks later, they walked
in the other location.

All the participants who walked around the park benefitted from
increased lung capacity after the first hour, but very little
difference was seen for those who walked around Oxford Street.

While people doing the park walk had increased blood flow and
their arteries became less stiff by 24% in some cases, the Oxford
Street walkers saw barely any improvement, with just a 4.6%
improvement for healthy volunteers.

Oxford Street has been cleaning up its act recently by
introducing electric buses, which has seen pollution drop by a third.
However, it is still a notorious area for dirty air, with high
levels of black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate

“These findings are important as for many people, such as the
elderly or those with chronic disease, very often the only
exercise they can do is to walk,” said senior author Fan Chung,
Professor of Respiratory Medicine and Head of Experimental
Studies Medicine at National Heart & Lung Institute at
Imperial College London. “Our research suggests that we might
advise older adults to walk in green spaces, away from built-up
areas and pollution from traffic.”

Although the study was fairly small and the walks were short, the
researchers concluded that the results suggest the over-60s and
those with lung or heart problems should not walk around urban
areas with heavy traffic. Chung said traffic pollution could also
affect younger people who spend time in the polluted areas.

“For people living in the inner city it may be difficult to find
areas where they can go and walk, away from pollution. There may
be a cost associated as they have to travel further away from
where they live or work,” he said. “These are issues that mean we
really need to reduce pollution by controlling traffic. That
should allow everyone to be able to enjoy the health benefits of
physical activity in any urban environment.”




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