Urban exercise: beat the smog

Britain's cities are among the worst polluted in Europe and it's not just Olympic athletes who'll suffer. Jamie Merrill reports on the toxic threat we face – and how urban exercisers can avoid it

There's nothing sweeter than the smug feeling that you're getting the better of the rat race. While your fellow commuters struggle in on the bus, you sail by on your bike or jog along overtaking them at every traffic jam on your way to work. But what if instead of doing your body a favour you're really exposing it to dangerous air pollution?

Exercising or playing sport in Britain's cities can be a dirty affair. We have some of the worst air-quality figures in Europe, London is one of the EU's worst offenders for poor air quality and as many as 30,000 people across the country die prematurely each year because of poor air quality – more than die from alcohol abuse, obesity or in car accidents.

The majority of this pollution comes from emissions of toxic gases and particulates from car exhausts and dirty diesel engines. These include nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas and PM10 and PM2.5 particulates, tiny specks of oily and partially combusted matter. There is no known "safe" exposure level to PM10s and air quality is so poor in some places, and particularly in the capital, that the UK is regularly in breach of EU limits and is threatened with a total of £300m in fines. "The last time there was this much concern about air pollution in London was during the 'Great Smog of 1952'," says Simon Birkett, director of air pollution watchdog Clean Air in London. "Levels of nitrogen dioxide are more than twice World Health Organisation guidelines and legal limits near London's busiest streets."

According to Birkett, we face a "perfect storm" of air quality concerns in the run up to the Olympic Games next week. "It could have an effect on competitors during the Games, particularly in endurance events. Athletes who may be prone to conditions such as asthma may get a cough or increased breathlessness," adds Dr Keith Prowse, a medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation.

Professional athletes aren't the only people who need to be concerned, though. "Risks from exercising in areas of poor-air pollution include the aggravation of pre-existing lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Even in those with no history of chest disease there may be irritation to the whole respiratory tract, from the nose down to the small tubes in the lungs as a result of fumes and particulates," says Dr Prowse. A 2005 study from Edinburgh University showed exposure to diesel pollution while exercising causing blood vessels to become less flexible and produce less of a protein that breaks down blood clots in the heart. This is because exercise increases how deeply you breath and more particles bypass the nasal filters (your nose hairs) that trap dangerous particles. Other studies have shown links between air pollution and various forms of cancer.

And it's not just athletes and fitness fans in London that need to worry. Twelve UK cities including Bristol, Brighton, Birkenhead, Liverpool, Newcastle Preston, Tyneside and Sheffield face legal action from the action from the European Commission over air quality. And 28 zones across the country are expected to fail to meet legally binding EU limits by 2015.

The weather plays a big part, too. "Air pollution is worse in very calm conditions, high pressure and when there is no wind to disperse it," says Dr Prowse. Pollution leves are already rising according to Defra and if it stays hot during Games we may see a "smog episode". This is when on still, hazy days, a layer of warm air traps pollutants like NO2 and PM10s close to the ground. Smog episodes are not uncommon and there have been five already this year.

So does that mean you should avoid exercise then? "No," says Professor Frank Kelly, of the Environmental Health department at King's College London. "Not exercising at all is far worse than exposing yourself to air pollution." The NHS recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week and missing out on this can lead to long-term health problems – figures published last week in The Lancet show that lack of physical activity is responsible for as many deaths as smoking.

"You just need to take the right precautions, stay informed and understand what sort of pollution you are dealing with," says Professor Kelly.

 

Pollution-free fitness: The essential guide to working up a sweat in the smog

Steer clear of busy streets

Exercising out of town is, of course, much better for you, but there are still things you can do in town to limit the extent air pollution can damage your health. "It is amazing how much you can reduce your exposure to particulate emissions by simply moving away from the source of the pollution," says Professor Frank Kelly. "So avoid busy roads and use side streets and parks instead." If you commute to work along a main road you should consider altering your route to reduce long-term exposure.

Get out early

Ozone pollution, what we often see as a hazy smog, is produced when pollutants, such as NO2, react with sunlight. "The main way to avoid ozone pollution is to get your exercise in early or late in the day," says Professor Kelly. "This avoids the poor air quality we can see when the temperature rises in the afternoon and NO2 becomes fixed in the atmosphere".

Stay informed

With air pollution, forewarned is definitely forearmed. There are probably only 15 major periods of concern for most healthy people each year – many more in certain local areas. To stay one step ahead of the smog you can check online for poor air-quality areas and in particular which sort of dangerous emission is high. For example. If NO2 levels are high, get your exercise in early but if PM10 levels are high you'll want to avoid busy roads. You can check Defra's Daily Air Quality Index and the London Air Quality Network in the capital for more information (defra.gov.uk; londonair.org.uk). Professor Kelly recommends downloading the free app from the London Air Quality Network to your smartphone.

Use protection

This one's tricky; should your wear a respiratory mask or not? The jury is still out. The British Lung Foundation advises that people can wear a mask when levels of pollution are very high. However, they also note that “there is not yet conclusive evidence that they are effective at UK air pollution levels”, adding that "in some cases they can even make breathing and exercise more difficult". Professor Kelly however isn't convinced and argues they will not "protect you against tiny PM10 particles that will just go straight through the filter". There is some evidence though, Professor Kelly admits, that a mask fitted with an activated charcoal filter will help to protect you from NO2 and ozone pollution. Similarly, science is split as to what benefit may be gained from taking antioxidant supplements. They could help to protect against oxidative damage but little research has been carried out. That said, it won't harm to eat antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables, such as broccoli, red peppers and melons.

When to call it a day

For some people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, exercising in heavy pollution is a bad idea. The Defra website has a scale of pollution alerts depending on your condition. "For most people, though, exercise is an important part of staying healthy, and exercise should only be avoided if levels of pollution are very high," says Dr Keith Prowse. "And if you prefer to avoid pollution by exercising in an air-conditioned gym, remember to remain in the air-conditioned environment until your breathing has returned to its normal rate."

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
news

Sport
footballThe latest scores and Twitter updates from tonight’s games, featuring Bayern Munich vs Man City and Chelsea vs Schalke
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
Extras
10 best table lamps
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

    £55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

    English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...

    Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 6 Teacher RequiredThis teaching...

    SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's Stortford / Stansted

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week