Scary Ways Pollution May Be Affecting Your Workout. 5 Tips to Protect Yourself

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The weather is warm, the sun is shining, and you want to train outside. Who can blame you? Research has revealed numerous benefits to exercising outdoors. But there is at least one danger to your health lurking among the grass and trees: Pollution. And it’s everywhere.

Pollution, a complicated mess of gases and airborne particles, is what makes the air look sometimes brown or gray. It’s the stuff “air quality alerts” are made of — an all-too-familiar occurrence if you live in particularly susceptible zones like Los Angeles, Houston, New York City or even St. Louis.

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“Particulate matter air pollution has been linked to oxidative stress, inflammation and a variety of chronic medical conditions,” says Melinda Power, PhD, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Her research linking exposure to air pollution to anxiety is just one of numerous studies that have come out in the past six months pinpointing pollution as a catalyst to health problems from allergies to life-threatening diseases.

How Pollution Poses Problems

You probably remember the concern about air quality in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and how it would have a negative impact on athletes’ performance. Because of China’s clean-up initiative of the pollution at that time, research has shown that not only did medal contenders benefit from the country’s efforts, but residents had a boost in heart health, too.

“Air pollutants work in numerous ways,” says Dr. Anoop Shah, a cardiology research fellow at the Centre of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of recent research published in the British Medical Journal linking pollution exposure to strokes.

Scientists are still in the process of figuring out exactly what pollution does to our bodies. Depending on your health, the body’s system and the locale, air pollution can affect you differently. For instance, Dr. Shah explains that in our vascular system, those tiny bits of matter floating through the air could chemically react to our blood’s cholesterol making them more sticky and likely to clot. “A spike in air pollution, however, may actually trigger acute blockages of arteries, causing a more profound clinical effect such as stroke or a heart attack,” Dr. Shah says.

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New York University researchers found this to be true when they analyzed the medical records of 307,444 people in the tri-state area. Those who lived in zip codes with the highest average levels of fine-particulate-matter pollution generally showed signs of narrowing in their carotid arteries — the ones on either side of the neck that provide blood to the brain — compared to those living in low pollution levels.

And while this sounds like the stuff medical dramas are based on, don’t count on an epidemic of joggers having heart attacks by the side of the road. While pollution may cause an increase in blood pressure or a higher risk of stroke, it isn’t the singular cause of these conditions. The air we breathe along with the particles in it exacerbate conditions that might already be festering. In other words, if you’re already at risk for heart disease, exposure to air pollution will make your condition worse.

Yes, You Can Exercise Outside

While all of this sounds very Debbie-Downer, does it mean that you need to forgo exercising outside? No. In fact, exercise is one of the ways that research suggests to mitigate the effects of air pollution on our bodies. Most recently, a study out of the University of Copenhagen examined the physical leisure activities of 52,061 residents of the cities of Aarhus and Copenhagen in Denmark from 1993 to1997. Of those studied, 5,500 of them died before 2010, but of the residents who exercised there was a 20 percent less mortality than those who did not exercise. This held true even if they lived in the most polluted areas of the cities.

The takeaway: It’s healthier to go for a run or walk, or bike to work, than it is to stay inactive, even if you live in an extremely polluted area. But that isn’t the only thing you can do to help lessen the possible damage pollution can cause to your body. Here are some proven ways to minimize your chances of danger.

5 Tips to Lessen Damage from Pollution

1. Be aware of the pollution levels in your area. For now, you can look to your local news, head to NPR’s Poisoned Places map, or use an app, such as the American Lung Association’s State of the Air, to get an idea about the air quality in your area. Eventually, air quality in your current location could be detected by your smartphone, according to a report in Environmental Science & Technology.

2. Avoid exercising near busy roadways or during rush hour. The highest amount of pollution can be found near high traffic regions. We probably didn’t need to tell you that, but the higher concentration of particles in the air can increase your overall stroke risk, says Dr. Shah. Instead, seek out parks and wooded areas. Trees naturally clean the air and may decrease the amount of pollutants in it.

3. Eat cruciferous vegetables. Kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, radishes and broccoli sprouts aren’t just trendy, they could possibly prevent pollution from settling in our bodies. Their secret agent: the plant compound sulforaphane. It helps our body’s cells adapt to and survive environmental toxins, according to research published in Cancer Prevention Research.

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4. Ante up your antioxidant intake. Antioxidants are known to help the body fight off oxidative stress — similar to what pollution causes in the body. According to a report in Environmental Health Perspectives, making sure that you’re consuming, even supplementing, with vitamins B6, B12, C and E can potentially diminish the cardiovascular and respiratory havoc that pollution can have on the body.

5. Eat for heart health. Avoiding salt, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids and eating a predominantly vegetarian diet can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. This can make you less susceptible to air pollution’s health threats, suggests a scientific review published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“We now know that air pollution not only affects the lungs,” Dr. Shah says. It is a public health threat that needs to be reduced via government policies, he adds. Until those rules and regulations kick in (and there is evidence that they are), be diligent with your diet, exercise and air quality awareness. Consider it your own anti-pollution campaign.

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