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EnvironmentHealth & Wellness

Outdoor Exercise Versus Air Pollution

By Erin Law
9 May 2016

A recent study by the University of Cambridge reported that the benefits of walking and cycling outside outweigh the risks associated with current air pollution levels in the UK . Approximately 40,000 deaths in the UK per year are attributed to exposure to outdoor air pollution, and outdoor exercise contributes to that exposure. However, according to the University of Cambridge researchers, the health benefits of exercise, namely lowering the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and several cancers, outweighs the harmful effects of air pollution to one’s body.

The study, based on the average air pollution concentration in an urban area, found that the risks of air pollution would only begin to outweigh the benefits of outdoor exercise after 7 hours of cycling or 16 hours of walking per day. The lead author of the study makes a brief mention of the “small minority of workers” in the most polluted cities, such as bike messengers, who “may be exposed to levels of air pollution high enough to cancel out the health benefits of physical activity.” This observation, however, lends itself to the possibility of overgeneralizing the working population in the UK and globally, as well as suggesting that inaction in combating pollution is acceptable.

Around the world, more than 3 million people die prematurely every year from outdoor pollution, a figure that is expected to double by 2050 if sufficient action is not taken to combat it. While white-collar workers are primarily indoors in an office setting during the day, those in manual labor jobs outdoors or in industrial factories are exposed to air pollution in a higher rate, disproportionately exposing those of a lower socioeconomic class to the effects of air pollution. People with asthma, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease are at an increased risk of health issues from air pollution due to these conditions, and those with lower incomes and less access to health care services are further disadvantaged from having the needed resources to alleviate these ailments.

While combating air pollution requires long-term initiatives and changes, is it ethically problematic to focus on short-term, optimistic observations such as the benefits of outdoor exercise in comparison to the risks of air pollution? Is this information useful to UK citizens, or misleading in its framing of current air quality effects? Despite its informative intentions, studies such as this one may undermine the severity of air pollution and detract attention from the immediate action needed to combat poor air quality globally.

Erin graduated from DePauw University with Sociology and Spanish majors. She was a member of the Media Fellows program and Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, and she is a Minnesota native.
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