Air pollution cancels out health benefits of exercise

6 December 2017        

Category: Research

The cardiovascular benefits of a brisk walk along Oxford Street are cancelled out by exposure to air pollution for the over 60s, according to new research funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

The research, published in the Lancet and carried out by Imperial College London and Duke University in North Carolina, compared the benefits of exercising in Oxford Street and Hyde Park in people aged 60 and over.

The researchers found that levels of pollution - including fine particulate matter, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide - were significantly higher on Oxford Street compared to Hyde Park.

Volunteers who took a walk in Hyde Park experienced a decrease in the stiffness of their arteries, a benefit normally seen after exercise. In contrast, volunteers who walked on Oxford Street had a worrying increase in artery stiffness following exercise. The results suggest that poor air quality can cancel out exercise benefits and demonstrate the health impacts of even short-term exposure to air pollution.

The research also showed that medications for heart disease, such as statins, might protect against some of the damage caused by air pollution.

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive at the British Heart Foundation, said:

“Air pollution contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, and the extent of its damage to our cardiovascular health is becoming clearer all of the time.

Exercise is crucial in reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke, but it seems dangerous levels of air pollution could be erasing these benefits in older adults. When exercising it’s best to avoid highly-polluted areas, swapping them for green spaces or even back streets where pollution is lower. This will ensure you can experience the full benefits of exercise.

“However, telling joggers to avoid polluted streets is not a solution to the problem. The Government must put forward bold measures to make all areas safer for our hearts and clean up the UK’s toxic air.”

Previous BHF research has shown that long-term exposure to air pollution leads to inflammation in the blood vessels, including those supplying the heart, and promotes the build-up of fatty plaques in the linings of blood vessels, which can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.