Pollution wipes out the benefits of exercise, study suggests

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images

Responding to the study, Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, at The Open University, said: The research does convince me, though, that poor air quality does play an important role in the short-term benefit one can get from taking a walk.

Analysis of the data, published in the British Medical Journal, showed the link between increased traffic-related air pollutants and low-weight or small babies.

A new United Kingdom study examined how even short-term exposure to tiny particles of soot or dust in traffic fumes can affect the arteries and lungs - and the research is likely applicable to Australia, says one expert.

According to the authors, cutting the average concentration of fine particle pollution emitted by the city's road traffic by just 10% could prevent around 90 babies a year (3% of cases) being born with low birth weight.

"Our findings indicate that in traffic congested streets, like London's Oxford Street, the health benefits of walking do not always outweigh the risk from traffic pollution", said senior author Professor Fan Chung, from the National Heart & Lung Institute at Imperial College London. "That should allow everyone to be able to enjoy the health benefits of physical activity in any urban environment".

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However, that doesn't mean Londoners should suddenly give up all exercise, as the study only applies to outdoor exercise in busy, polluted areas. They were randomly allotted to walk either in the west end of Oxford Street which is restricted to taxis and buses emitting diesel fumes and which has frequently breached air quality limits set by the World Health Organisation, or a traffic-free area of Hyde Park.

To do so, they examined 119 individuals over the age of 60, who were either healthy, had stable coronary heart disease or had stable ischemic heart disease. Before and after the walks (which averaged 3.1 miles at each setting), the participants underwent various tests that are created to assess the effects of exercise on heart and lung health.

Environmental measurements were also collected, to track pollution levels and volunteers' exposure. But, a walk along a busy roadside led to only a small increase in lung capacity in participants, far lower than recorded in the park, the research suggested. The researchers say that stress, such as from the increased noise on Oxford Street, could have had an effect.

After a stroll in Hyde Park, it was found that the lung capacity of the volunteers significantly improved in the first hour, lasting for more than 24 hours.

Blood flow also increased after exercise, with decreases in blood pressure and an increase in heart rate. They asked the volunteers to walk for two hours midday in one of two locations in London.

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Furthermore, they discovered walking in Hyde Park reduced arterial stiffness by more than 24 percent for both healthy and coronary heart disease patients. Two-thirds of the volunteers had been diagnosed with either heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), while the others were healthy (no pre-existing heart or lung condition).

"For many people, such as the elderly or those with chronic disease, the only exercise they very often can do is to walk", Chung said.

'Our research suggests that we might advise older adults to walk in green spaces, away from built-up areas and pollution from traffic'.

The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation.

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