Does Air Pollution Affect Sports Performance?

(Last Updated On: April 12, 2017)

heavy smogThose who do their workouts outside may be exposed to the effects of air pollution. There has been a recent boom in the number of studies on the effects of air pollution, due to the growing concerns about exhaust emission, climate change, air quality in large cities, etc.

It has been found that the inhalation of polluted air can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and other symptoms of bronchospasms induced by exercising, as well as decreased lung functions. During light-to-moderated exercise, we take in more air with each breath in order to meet higher oxygen demands. The nose’s natural filtration of soluble vapors and large particles is then bypassed, as we breathe through the mouth. Breathing becomes deeper and faster as the exercising progresses, different air pollutants get inhaled and travel into the respiratory system.

Ozone and Particulate Matter

Ozone and particulate matter are two significant pollutants we may be exposed to while working out outdoors. These fine particulates are something to worry about, especially in the case of athletes who can take in elevated doses in the process of physical exertion (taking 10-20 times more air in with each breath than sedentary people).

According to a 2011 study, exercise performance has been shown to decrease in high-particulate matter conditions, because the vasodilation in the peripheral vasculature is impaired. The particulates are less concentrated the further away you’re from freshly generated automobile exhaust, which contains the highest concentrations of ultrafine particles that find their way into your lungs.

Ozone, on the other hand, is not released directly into the air, but created through chemical reactions between heat, sunlight, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and NOx. Ozone levels are lower in winter than in summer, and its concentrations usually peak when solar radiation is highest (at midday), especially in larger cities. The results of being exposed to ozone during workouts are decreased exercise capacity, reduced lung functions, and increased resting blood pressure.

Are There Long-Term Consequences?

The data included in the Women’s Health Initiative was used in a study, published by The New England Journal of Medicine, where it was found that women who lived in environments with high levels of air pollution were more likely to die of heart attacks than those who lived in cleaner air. Smog, the popular name for ground-level ozone, has been recognized as a threat to cardiovascular health a long time ago. However, researchers agree that the greatest public health impact of air pollution comes from ultrafine particulates, visible only through an electronic microscope.

smog and exercise

Should I Replace Outdoor with Indoor Exercise?

When exercising indoors, the exposure to outdoor pollutants is certainly limited. However, some conditions may be just as toxic and lead to carbon monoxide or NOx poisoning (in gas-heated homes). If you want to exercise indoors, you should choose a well-ventilated area. However, you shouldn’t give up on outdoor exercise, even in case of slight damage from air pollution, but try to cut back on the exposure to particles. After all, breathing these fine particles is not nearly as bad as smoking.

How to Limit Exposure to Air Pollutants?

If you want to continue exercising outdoors, avoid exercising during rush hour, along highways, and in other areas of heavy traffic. In the summertime, exercise when temperatures and ozone levels are low, that is in the morning. The toxins from air pollution can be negated through good nutrition and sleeping in a clean bedroom, so you can browse through some air purifier reviews to choose the best one for your home. When air quality indicates high particulate and ozone levels, opt for indoor exercise. Avoid long car rides in congested traffic and smoky areas before demanding physical activity, so as to limit your carbon monoxide exposure.

When the sun starts shining hard, people are happy and grateful to be able to work out without suiting up for low temperatures. However, air pollution is the trademark of summer that, on the other hand, may impair their physical performance. However, poor air quality is not the reason to give up exercising outdoors, but simply follow some of these tips to limit your exposure to air pollutants.