Air Pollution In London 'So Bad It Cancels Out Benefits Of Exercise'

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This builds on previous studies which have suggested air pollution exposure could cause premature births.

Findings of the study suggested that pregnant mothers exposed to air pollution from air pollution in the capital are more likely to give birth to babies that are underweight or smaller than they should be.

They argue the study should "increase awareness that prenatal exposure to small particle air pollution is detrimental to the unborn child", but stress that increasing awareness without solutions "may serve only to increase maternal anxiety and guilt". Average day and night-time road traffic noise levels were also estimated.

For the study, researchers at Imperial College London and Duke University recruited 199 volunteers aged 60 and older.

They call on governments "to impose policies and measures that can reduce traffic pollution so that every individual can enjoy the health benefits of physical activity".

The project was also supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department of Health.

But impurities in the air are everywhere, and even in places where pollution levels aren't awful, they can still negate the positive health effects of getting outside, at least among older adults. About a third of participants had a mild form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease COPD, a third had stable ischemic heart disease, and a third didn't have either of these conditions.

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Participants were randomly assigned to spend two hours walking along the western end of London's Oxford Street, an area where traffic is restricted to diesel-powered buses and cabs; or through a traffic-free area of the city's Hyde Park.

Walking is the sort of low impact exercise recommended by the NHS for older people to improve their cardiovascular fitness, but the study found that the impact of air pollution negated this. Data analysis was carried out at the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London and Kings College London, and the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey.

Likewise the increase in blood flow usually associated with exercise was virtually absent in those walking along the busy shopping street. Specifically, their lung capacity improved within the first hour - and, in many cases, that improvement continued for more than 24 hours.

Their stride through a quiet section of Hyde Park had a positive impact on the heart and lungs, but a similar level of exercise in Oxford Street had a minimal effect on health. Arteries became less stiff in those walking in Hyde Park with a maximum change from baseline of more than 24% in healthy and COPD volunteers, and more than 19% in heart disease patients.

The team emphasised that although the study only involved two relatively short walks, repeated exposure to air pollution would also not be beneficial to our respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and although the study included older participants, the findings could also apply to other age groups.

"Our findings suggest that healthy people, as well as those with chronic cardiorespiratory disorders, should minimize walking on streets with high levels of pollution because this curtails or even reverses the cardiorespiratory benefits of exercise", the researchers wrote.

The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation.

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