Does air pollution nullify the health benefits of cycling and walking?
There is no magic medicine solution that can make us healthier on the long run like good old exercising can. Even just a few days at the gym per week can make your body stronger and much healthier, thus reducing the exposure to various diseases.
Regular exercising can greatly reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and several types of cancers. Many people have tried to increase the quality of their lifestyle through “active travel” which includes cycling or walking. However, due to the high levels of pollutants in the air, is this alternative commuting really that healthy? Many people are actually more concerned for their health while walking or cycling to work in our urban environments.
Over the past few decades, air pollution has become one of the major environmental risks for our health. According to World Health Organization, there were 3.7 million premature deaths in 2012 all around the world, due to ambient air pollution. Additionally, recently in Australia it has been reported that 1.5% of all deaths are related to long-term exposure to air pollution in urban areas and 0.8% to short-term ones.
According to several studies from earlier this year, air pollutants kill over 5 million people every year. While walking or cycling to work, more air is inhaled than when you are just sitting in your car or train. All the huffing and puffing on your bicycle makes you breathe in much more air, thus inhaling toxic pollutants which later lead to some severe respiratory problems.
Additionally, researchers have calculated the “breaking point” which represents the point when the cycling is no more beneficial for the health, but it does more harm. However, that point occurs only after cycling for more than 60 minutes per day.
Since people try to increase the quality of their lives by cycling and walking to work or school, they have tried several protection measures from the pollution. Mostly, people wear masks to protect their respiratory systems and try to inhale as least polluted air as possible. This helps them reduce the muck on their faces and noses. Another possible solution is opting for faster bicycles. The less time you spend behind a car or the least you huff and puff, the inhaled pollutants will reduce. That is why many people consider it convenient to find electric bikes in Sydney shops. Since these are electric and do not require a lot of pedaling, you automatically inhale less polluted air.
However, even though long-term exposure to the air pollution can be harmful, according to the latest studies, everyday cycling and exercises outweighs the negative effects on health of those pollutants. The study was done by scientists in Spain, Brazil and Switzerland and the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh and Imperial College London in the UK. They have showed that even in the most polluted cities of the world, such as Delhi and London, regular cycling and physical activity can outweigh polluted air effects.
Scientists used computer simulation in order to assess the risks and benefits for different intensities and duration of active travelling exposed to different air pollution levels in locations around the world. What the results have shown is that the benefits outweigh the risks. Such results should encourage people to get out of their cars and not to be afraid of cycling and walking to work. What is more, fewer cars on the street can only result in less pollution.
With this study, the policy makers should consider changing the way of planning their infrastructures, and more politicians and public figures should now promote cycling and regular physical activity in order to show people how to live healthier.