Physical exercise, even in polluted air, can extend life expectations
The reader’s forum of Dutch newspaper, Volkskrant, published an interesting question this week. What is best for you health, riding a bicycle along a busy road or drive your car?
Cycling seems healthy but what about the polluted air that you breathe? Long-term exposure to polluted air is a known cause for cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems but maybe some physical exercise can counterbalance the negative effects?
Several scientists of the University in Utrecht (The Netherlands), studied the reader’s question. They envisioned a scenario where 500.000 people (between 18 and 64 years old) swapped their car for a daily bicycle ride of 7,5 to 15 kilometres. What would the effect be on their life expectations?
The car doesn’t completely protect you from air pollution in the first place. Even with air filters aboard, noxious substances enter the car. Cyclists, however, breathe in more polluted air because of the physical exercise. According to statistics, the risk for accidents is also higher with the bike.
The researchers discovered that due to the risk for accidents and the inhaled air, the bike-riders would loose respectively 5 to 9 days and 0,8 to 40 days of their life. Compared to the effect of physical exercise, the results were stunning, though. According to the calculations, the physical active group would be able to gain 3 to 14 months of life.
More physical exercise
Conclusion? The balance is leaning over positively for the bicycle. Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, specialized in environmentally related epidemics at the Barcelona Institute for Global Heath, is convinced of the advantages of physical exercise as well. “Especially for non-active people. A small bicycle ride can already make a world of difference.”
Not all studies show the same rosy picture, though. A Belgian experiment, in which Nieuwenhuijsen participated, showed opposite results. 115 healthy adults in Antwerp, Barcelona and London, who were exposed to black carbon, showed more negative effects for the lungs after physical exercise. Probably because they were more often outside.
Car-free city centre
“It would be best for our health not to use our car so often”, says Nieuwenhuijsen. Cities should be reorganized, with car-free city centres, more green and a better infrastructure for bikers and pedestrians. “It would kill two birds with one stone. It would motivate people to move and the air all around would be cleaner.”