Exhausted – The effect of air pollution on running

It might be just me, but it seems that air pollution has risen on the agenda of Things To Worry About in the last few months. Plastic pollution was one of the key phrases within eco-conscious circles in 2019, with laws coming into place this year in a bid to control the problem. The term pollution, however, refers not only to plastic, but also the introduction of any contaminant into the environment which may cause harm. This can take the form of noise, light, chemicals or even heat – most of which we cannot see.

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Pollution is an issue in cities (and even many rural areas) around the world

Air pollution has a devastating impact on those living in the cities. While the pollution usually cannot be seen, the impacts are felt by all, with it shortening lives and contributing to a number of health problems. In the UK, pollution is a bigger killer than smoking, and costs the UK economy over £20bn per year. The biggest culprits are Nitrogen dioxide, emitted mainly by diesel vehicles, and PM2.5, fine particulate matter linked to adverse health effects. In the EU the toxic air is causing more than 1000 premature deaths each day from PM2.5– a figure which is 10 times higher than the number of deaths from traffic accidents.

Because of this invisible nature, it has been easy for people (and thus governments) to ignore the issue, focussing instead on highly visible, highly publicised issues and ‘buzzwords’, such as banning straws (good, but of limited benefit to the plastic pollution problem). However, in October 2019, it was announced that the UK would introduce an Environment Bill to “help ensure that we maintain and improve our environmental protections as we leave the EU”, including focussing on air quality and PM2.5 in particular.

For runners and cyclists, an immediate concern, however, is how we can actively work to improve our health (and continue doing what we love) without inadvertently harming ourselves.

Unfortunately, running in heavily polluted air has been linked to inflamed lungs, increased risk of asthma (I experienced this firsthand at the age of 18, when I moved to Paris), and instances of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. Needless to say, these risk factors are enough to put people off, and encourage them to run on a treadmill (boring), or worse still, avoid exercising outdoors entirely. But is this entirely justified?

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Live pollution meter of London (18/02/2020 10am)

Even the scientists admit the problem is complex. Andrew Grieve, Senior Air Quality Analyst at King’s College London, says “when you’re running, you’re breathing a lot more than you are just walking along the street and your inhalation rate is massive so you’re bringing in more pollution.” In fact, someone running a marathon will inhale the same amount of oxygen as a normal person would sitting down over two days. Most people also tend to breathe through their mouths, bypassing the nasal filters, which can work to reduce pollution intake. The carbon monoxide alone can inhibit the body’s ability to transport oxygen around the body, thus making running that little bit harder too.

On the plus side, running is really good for you. Although I couldn’t find any studies looking directly at the effect of running in polluted areas (other than this, for elite athletes over marathon distance), a study on people walking in polluted areas up to 16h a day or cycling up to 3.5h per day suggested that the benefits of activity outweighed any harm from pollution in all but the most extreme of cases.

Conclusions

The benefits from active travel generally outweigh health risks from air pollution and therefore should be further encouraged. When weighing long-term health benefits from PA (physical activity) against possible risks from increased exposure to air pollution, our calculations show that promoting cycling and walking is justified in the vast majority of settings, and only in a small number of cities with the highest PM2.5concentration in the world cycling could lead to increase in risk. (Tainio, Marko, et al. “Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?.” Preventive medicine 87 (2016): 233-236.)

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Photo by James Purvis

However, there are things we could be doing to both decrease our risk of being negatively affected by air pollution, and also improve the air quality where we live.

  1. Choose lesser polluted routes when walking, running or cycling around cities. Choosing to walk or cycle on a quiet road instead of a busy one can sharply reduce the amount of pollution you take in. Even using a parallel road one block over from a traffic-clogged one can reduce your exposure by 50%. If you’re looking to run or cycle around London, consider downloading Clean Air Run Club on your phone to score routes by air quality.
  2. Run in the morning. Pollution increases throughout the day, especially in summer.
  3. Aim to find green spaces, or roads lined with trees – these are havens from pollution, and even a small amount of greenery between you and the traffic can dramatically reduce pollution levels!
  4. Take note of particularly bad air days using a live air quality monitor. These will often be on hot and humid days. If you can, avoid running/cycling outside on these days, perhaps getting in some cross training indoors, or a run on the treadmill.
  5. Take public transport. Although particulate pollution in tube lines is up to 30 times higher than roadside, Prof Frank Kelly, chair of Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), said people should continue to use the tube given the relatively short time spent underground and lack of evidence of harmful effects. Using public transport also reduces fumes expelled by cars, cleaning the air above ground that we breathe for the rest of the day.
  6. Eliminate wood burners and fireplace usage. Wood fires are sold as ‘eco’ or ‘clean’ alternatives to electric heaters or gas fires, but are far from it, and are a big contributor to wintertime pollution across Britain. Reducing wood burning reduces deaths and pollution-related ill-health.
  7. Switch to clean energy sources and aim to conserve energy at home and work. By switching to a renewable energy that is generated by natural sources such as solar, water and wind, you can help to fight harmful levels of air pollution.
  8. Lobby governments. For real change to be seen, governments need to prioritise pollution and other environmental issues (which go hand in hand), and now is the time to pressure them.
  9. Stop driving (especially around urban areas) unless absolutely necessary. Although you may believe driving a car protects you from the worst of the fumes, pollution levels inside cars are usually significantly higher than directly outside the car on the street, due to exhaust fumes being circulated around the enclosed space.

The good news is that we know the impact of pollution and we know what we can do to reduce it. We also know that even small improvements have substantial and immediate benefits for us all. What is needed now is for global governments to step up and reassess funding priorities. Pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, and it’s time something was done about it.

 

This article was adapted from a piece I wrote for EcoAge. For more of a deep dive into the issue of pollution, head on over. 

Come and find me on YouTube and Instagram for more running content!

Podcast recommendations

Podcasts became a huge part of my life around 2017, when I started using them to learn more about my chosen final year Biology topics. Since then, they’ve been a constant accompaniment to my everyday life – from sitting in the tube to heading out for some long and otherwise lonely runs. Most recently, I have taken on ‘walk to school month’ as my very own #walktowork month, joined by some others throughout instagram. The health benefits of fresh air and low-intensity exercise cannot be overstated, especially during the darker months, so please join in!

The time spent listening to podcasts is time that not only passes quicker, but is also hugely productive – from keeping up with current events to learning about niche topics, podcasts (in my opinion) make you a more interesting person all round. Let me know of any of your own suggestions and tell me how you get on!

I get my podcasts on Overcast but you can also get them on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher and many other places.

 

In no particular order, here is the list of my favourite podcasts:

The High Low
“A weekly pop-culture / news podcast brought to you by Dolly Alderton & Pandora Sykes – the former co-hosts of The Pandolly Podcast.” Another conversational podcast on all things popular culture, including the #MeToo movement, celebrity news and food snobbery. Very useful if you don’t want to read the news everyday but also want to know what’s going on in the world (and not just the serious stuff).

 

RunPod
Every week Jenni Falconer speaks to a range of people who share her passion for running. From fitness experts to casual runners and everything in between, I love this podcast as it feels like I’m sitting down for a fun little chat with all the guests. “Along the way, you’ll hear top training tips, monumental mistakes and some inspirational stories. So, whether you’re a seasoned marathoner, treadmill trainer, fitness guru or simply putting off that Sunday jog, RunPod is here for you.” Recommend for your long runs.

 

Happy Place
“This is a place where I want to collect all things that make me happy – from joyful food to a clear mind. I hope there’s something here to bring good, simple happiness to your every day” – Fearne Cotton, presenter of Happy Place. I love this podcast because it goes behind the face of many celebrities and talks in a really emotionally intelligent way about mental health, tragedy and day to day life pressures. These are the kinds of conversations I live for, and if I can’t have them myself with these people, this is the next best thing 🙂

 

This American Life
“This American Life is a weekly public radio show, heard by 2.2 million people on more than 500 stations”. It explores themes of contemporary western living and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s one of the hardest podcasts to describe but is well worth a listen! It’s sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted but always draws you in to a story and makes you think!

 

Wardrobe Crisis
If you’re into sustainability and/or fashion, give Wardrobe Crisis a listen. Hosted by VOGUE’s sustainability editor, Clare Press, this interview-style podcast uncovers many hidden truths about the fashion industry. “Join Clare and her guests as they decode the fashion system, and dig deep into its effects on people and the planet. This show unzips the real issues that face the fashion industry today, with a focus on ethics, sustainability, consumerism, activism, identity and creativity”.

 

Freakonomics
“Freakonomics radio is an American public radio program which discusses socioeconomic issues for a general audience”. I have very little interest in economics really, but for someone who likes to understand the world this podcast brings up a whole load of things you’d just never think of. Great for lateral thinking.

 

The Power Hour
My friend and host Adrienne Herbert started the Power Hour as a way to inspire others to get up an hour earlier to achieve more with their days. Now it’s a weekly conversation with inspirational change makers to see what drives them. “Whether you want to build a business, write a book or run a marathon, the Power Hour is going to help you get there faster”!

 

Adulting
Another podcast hosted by a friend of mine, but I’m not just recommending it because of that! Oenone describes this as “the podcast that’s trying to figure out all of the things we never got taught at school”. This pod covers so many topics in deep-dives with interviewees, from diet culture, to white saviourism and money. I always learn something new when listening!

 

Invisibilia
“Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behaviour – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. I absolutely love this podcast. It’s less fact-based than the others I listen to, but explores things we wouldn’t often think about with anecdotes on a theme. Well worth a listen, but maybe give it a miss if you’re feeling a bit down. It can be quite bleak.

 

The Naked Scientists
“The Naked Scientists flagship science show brings you a lighthearted look at the latest scientific breakthrough, interviews with the world’s top scientists and answers to your science questions”. I know I’m an unashamed nerd, but I have no shame in recommending this to absolutely everyone. It’s done in a way that absolutely everyone can understand, so no need to feel like you’re not into science and therefore can’t listen!

 

Stuff you should know
“How do landfills work? How do mosquitoes work? Join Josh and Chuck as they explore the Stuff You Should Know about everything from genes to the universe”. Enjoying a podcast that explains just about anything you can think of pay put me somewhere on the nerd-autism spectrum, but I absolutely love it, and it gives you a basic knowledge of a bunch of stuff that people might talk about, from maps to nude beaches. Anything you can think of, it’s probably covered.

 

You are not so smart
“You are not so smart is a celebration of self delusion that explores topics related to cognitive biases, heuristics and logical fallacies”. I don’t understand what that means, but still MASSIVELY enjoy this podcast. It’s definitely in my top 3 pods ever, and also wins the ‘coolest intro music’ award.

 

Homo Sapiens
“Will Young and Christopher Sweeny talk to inspirational people over tea and biscuits.”. Basically described as ‘an LGBTQ version of Women’s Hour’, this podcast is like listening in to a conversation between the two hosts that ranges from hilarious to emotional and back in the space of an episode, covering a bunch of important topics. Not just for LGBTQ+ listeners! Have a listen and see what you think.

 

The Life Scientific
“Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them and asking what their discoveries might do for mankind”. If you’re a fan of amazing stories about people who have done amazing things, listen to this. I love to hear about the science, but even better than that is the often crazy and inspiring lives that the scientists have lived.

 

Nerdette
“Interviews with your favorite authors, artists, astronauts and more. Because everybody is a little nerdy about something.” This is a new one for me, recommended by a fellow woman interested in the world. It looks at popular culture (one of the latest ones was on black panther, another on Chloe Kim in the winter olympics) and hot topics in the news from a ‘woman of the world’ perspective. I love it!

 

The Debrief/ Nobody Panic podcast
“We all know that adulting is hard. As in, there aren’t nearly enough memes in the world to fully explain just how fantastically awkward it is to try and be an actual, legitimate grown up (because what does being a grown up even mean?). Each week The Debrief’s Stevie and Tessa will be on hand (erm, headphones?) to help you get your life together. They’ll be doing all of the hard, boring research for you into the things that you actually need to know to get by in life.” This podcast annoyed me at first, but actually has some reeeally useful tips and brings up some super important topics about being 20-something, especially as a woman. The Debrief website is also incredible, so if you like that, you’ll probably like this too.

 

Science Hour
“Science News and highlights of the week” – this may sound incredibly nerdy and in depth but the whole podcast explains everything in lay terms for everyone to understand. It reports the latest research in all areas of science, from medicine to astrology to palaeontology. I love keeping up with science news but have no knowledge of anything other than the basics in lots of fields, so it’s great to have the research and its relevance explained.

 

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Podcasts whilst walking to work or out on a run can make the time pass quicker!