One of the coolest things about being an urbanite is outdoor running. My running “hood” is the Jardin de Tuileries in the heart of Paris. Indulging in the morning hours in the city’s most picturesque view of the Champs Elysées with Arc de Triomphe on one end and the Louvre with its pyramid on the other…seeing the Eiffel Tower in the changing seasons… it’s unbeatably an amazing high! But did you know that there’s a possible downside?
WHAT DOES 50 YEARS OF STUDY SAY ON WORKING OUT OUTDOORS?
Yes, being an urban-dweller, when we run outside, even in the green areas and parks, we are after all running within a polluted city. Experts have been carrying out studies on this flip-side of outdoor exercising for over 50 years now, with some important tests prior to Olympic Games in polluted cities like Los Angeles in 1984 and Beijing in 2008. The picture is a bit smoggy (Source). In a nutshell, the key facts to keep in your mind while you partake of your exercise ritual outdoors are the following:
1. Urbanites are exposed to air pollution everywhere
Ok, some cities like Copenhagen and Bogotá seem to have made amazing improvements! However, the “UrbanMeisters” of World Health Organisation tell us that in most cities air quality fails to meet their guidelines and has been actually getting worse (Source). And mind you, this is not a problem of only Asian or Indian cities as some of you may think. About 90% of European urbans are exposed to air pollution levels that are harmful (Source). In its latest 2016 update on air pollution levels, released in May, World Health Organisation has observed that ‘more than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the WHO limits. Read report here.
2. When exercising, urbanites breath in more polluted air
When we do not exercise, we breathe about 8 litres of air per minute:
8 litres per minute seems a decent average to work with- the exact quantity however actually depends on age and gender (Source). This is probably the reason why you will find all sorts of different numbers and averages on the internet (not even our collective brain Wikipedia gives the same numbers in different languages).
When we exercise, our muscles need more oxygen to work:
To supply oxygen to our hard-working muscles, we breathe faster and deeper, so we inhale more air. Again, how much more depends on the gender, age and the pace/ strain of work-out, but a widely accepted rough estimate is about 100 litres of air per minute (Source).
Consequently more air breathed in = more pollutants getting inside the body. So when we run in the city, we inhale a more vicious cocktail of air pollutants than when we’re breathing normally.
3. Experts align: Pollution challenges runner’s defence system and health
Our clever body has 4 different defence systems to filter and clean the air while it passes through our nose, travels along the throat, arrives in the bronchi before being delivered into our blood stream. But while running, to gulp in more air, we end up breathing heavily with our mouths. Therefore the first issue- the air pollutants are not filtered by the nose as they pass directly through the mouth.
But even with nasal breathing techniques, we are not entirely safe, as some air pollutants are not only able to dupe our defence systems and pass through, but they are also successful in immobilising these natural filters and defence mechanisms of our body(Source). Pollutants can thus settle down everywhere along the way to our lungs, in the lungs themselves or even access the blood stream and spread to other organs.
Studies have clearly indicated the following harmful effects of pollutants entering our system while running:
- A steep drop in running performance (Source)
- Temporary discomforts like shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, headache, nausea or eye and throat irritation (Source)
- More serious impacts like chronic respiratory issues for asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike (Source) or cardiovascular issues (Source). I experienced a strange throat infection myself while training for the half marathon in March 2015. But more about that in another post.
DID YOU KNOW? Being aware of the ill-effects of running outdoors and suffering from asthma, marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie even decided not to participate in the Beijing Olympics (Source).
SO, RUNNER’S HIGH OR RUN DOWN? SHOULD WE KEEP RUNNING IN THE CITY?
Fact is, even though experts align on the negative effects of pollution, they cannot deny the positive effects of exercising. Some researchers have even proposed through their studies that the positive effects of running compensate for the negative effects of air pollution.
- A recent study in Copenhagen showed that the benefits of regular exercise outweigh the harmful effects of air pollution. The researches however stated that these results are valid only for Copenhagen where the study was carried out and should not be generalised (Source).
- Some experts like Michael Koehle, professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, share this opinion, because they have observed that a lot of effects of air pollution like heart attack and angina are reduced with regular exercise (Source).
- Other experts like the French Gilles Discaut however are hesitant to compare apples with pears, in this case the benefits of running with the negative effects of air pollution. Discaut observes that, in France, cardiovascular issues descrease, but at the same time respiratory issues increase (Source).
So while the dilemma doesn’t have a clear answer yet, the common conclusion that we can arrive at is: We should keep running and chasing the runner’s high even in an urban environment, but we should do it in a smart way and adopt vital green habits. Stay tuned to UrbanMeisters for simple tips that we are preparing for you to make your run greener & healther.
And now we leave you with Urbanmeisters’ favorite 5 running quotes! Happy running you Outdoor Junkie!
Before tying up our sneakers, we leave you with the Top 5 motivational quotes that are a favorite of the UrbanMeisters-Team:
RUNNING IS NOT ABOUT WINNING AGAINST SOMEBODY, IT IS WINNING FOR YOU.