A new study shows that exposure to pollution may reduce the benefits of exercise.

The study examined markers of brain disease in nearly 9000 people who exercise or play competitive sports and then compared them with data about air pollution.

The study is one of the first to show that vigorous exercise may actually increase exposure to air pollution, and therefore increase its negative effects.

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Air pollution: reducing the benefits of exercise


The study used data from 8,600 people, with an average age of 56. Their data were taken from the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database.

The subjects’ exposure to pollution, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (particles of liquids or solids suspended in the air) was estimated by means of land-use regression, a technique which models air pollution levels based on air monitors and land-use characteristics like traffic, agriculture and industrial air pollution.

Participants’ air pollution exposures were then categorized into four equal groups, from lowest air pollution to highest.

Each person’s physical activity was measured for a week-long period using an accelerometer, a movement-detecting device. Researchers next grouped them according to their physical activity patterns and how much vigorous physical activity they got, from none to 30 minutes or more per week.

The researchers saw that the subjects who got the most vigorous physical activity each week, on average, had 800 cm3 gray matter volume, compared to an average of 790 cmgray matter volume in people who did not get any.

Researchers showed that although air pollution exposures did not alter the effects of physical activity on gray matter, exposures did alter the effects of vigorous physical activity when looking at white matter hyperintensities.

After adjusting for age, sex and other covariates, researchers found that vigorous physical activity reduced white matter hyperintensities in areas of low air pollution, but these benefits were not found among those in high air pollution areas.

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Vigorous exercise may increase exposure to air pollution and prior studies have shown adverse effects of air pollution on the brain,” said study author Melissa Furlong, PhD, of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“We did show that physical activity is associated with improved markers of brain health in areas with lower air pollution. However, some beneficial effects essentially disappeared for vigorous physical activity in areas with the highest levels of air pollution. That’s not to say people should avoid exercise. Overall, the effect of air pollution on brain health was modest — roughly equivalent to half the effect of one year of aging, while the effects of vigorous activity on brain health were much larger — approximately equivalent to being three years younger.”

“More research is needed, but if our findings are replicated, public policy could be used to address people’s exposure to air pollution during exercise,” Furlong added. “For example, since a significant amount of air pollution comes from traffic, promoting running or bicycling along paths far from heavy traffic may be more beneficial.”

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