Researchers from the University of Copenhagen weighed the pros and cons of exercise and pollution to our long-term health. Their findings, which were published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, indicate that the positive effects of exercise are more important to our overall health than living a pollution-free life.
"Air pollution is often perceived as a barrier to exercise in urban areas,” said the study’s co-author Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Epidemiology and Screening in a press release. “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."
Physical activity reduces the risk of premature death, such as a heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic syndromes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, air pollution does the exact opposite, and increases risk of premature death. As you exercise more in areas like New York City, you inhale higher amounts of pollutants, the researchers said. Fortunately for city runners, park yogis, and the like, the study found the benefits of exercise still outweight the harm pollutants impose on the lungs.
Researchers examined data on 52,061 Danish participants aged 50 to 65 between 1993 and 1997. The participants reported the types of physical activity they engaged in and how often they exercised in the city. It turns out that 5,500 participants died before 2010, and approximately 20 percent avoided an early death because they exercised — they lived in the most polluted areas of Copenhagen, too.
With that said, if you ever want to go for a run next to the FDR Drive — with its tightly packed traffic and toxic exhaust — don’t fret. Your lungs will handle it a lot better than the rest of your body, which is being deprived of the daily exercise it needs to make it to a healthy ripe old age. The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise in order to lower risk of life-threatening diseases, along with blood pressure and cholesterol. Ignore the dirty air, breathe deep, and go for a run.
"We would still advise people to exercise and cycle in green areas, parks, [and] woods with low air pollution, and away from busy roads, when possible," Andersen said. “It is also important to note that these results pertain to Denmark and sites with similar air pollution levels, and may not necessarily be true in cities with several fold higher air pollution levels, as seen in other parts of the world.”
Source: Andersen JZ. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2015.