Taking Your Breath Away: Exercise and the Effects of Pollution

biking in pollution

If you have ever lived in a big city or near areas of massive manufacturing, you have experienced pollution.  Is it counterproductive or even dangerous to exercise in areas with poor air quality?  The deleterious consequences of air pollution on cardiovascular and respiratory health have been well documented, and if you already have any heart or lung conditions, then you may be particularly susceptible.

Outdoor air pollutants may include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter.  Although aerobic physical activity is essential for cardiovascular health, during intense activity the increase in respiration amplifies the dose of inhaled pollutants.  You are breathing faster and even deeper into your lungs.  With increased activity you may even switch from nasal to mouth breathing, bypassing any nasal filtration.

A recent study conducted in Hong Kong compared cardiorespiratory fitness levels of Chinese school children exposed to different levels of outdoor air pollution.  The results showed that children living in areas with higher levels of pollution performed significantly slower at fitness testing and had lower levels for maximum oxygen uptake.  The same appears to be true for elite endurance athletes.  A 2010 study comparing marathon finishing times observed that as ambient air pollutant concentrations increased, marathon performances decreased.

Beyond just hindering performance, the American Heart Association scientific statement “Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease” concluded that exposure to air pollution contributes to cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.  The adverse health outcomes from pollution include:

  • Damage to the airways of the lungs
  • Decreased pulmonary function
  • Increased reliance on medications
  • Exacerbated asthma symptoms
  • Increased risk of developing asthma
  • Increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of lung cancer

Although pollution can affect anyone, groups that are particularly susceptible to fluctuations in air quality include:

  • Children
  • Elderly
  • Individuals with respiratory diseases (asthma, COPD, and fibrosis)
  • Individuals with circulatory conditions (arrhythmias, hypertension, and ischemic heart disease)
  • Individuals with chronic diseases (diabetes and collagen diseases)

It is unclear how much exposure to pollution poses health risks.  However, staying active is incredibly important for health and wellness. Since it is virtually impossible to avoid all outdoor pollution, steps can be taking to reduce your exposure to it.


  1. Take your workout indoors.
  2. Avoid running or biking along major roads where there are high-traffic emissions.
  3. Choose to exercise in parks and athletic venues surrounded by trees and preferably away from high-traffic roadways.
  4. Exercise in the morning when pollutants are generally lower.
  5. Check daily pollution levels. A very popular app is CN air quality, easily available on itunes store too.
  6. Susceptible individuals may avoid exercising when air quality is poor.  Consult with your doctor.