Being Physically Active Can Be Your Enemy In Disguise

In a recent press release from the Columbia University, it was revealed that the children who hail from urban areas of New York City and engage in daily vigorous exercise are at a higher risk of exposure to black carbon, as compared to the children who are less active.

A multidisciplinary team of experts from Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health have reached this seemly obvious but rather an unsettling finding: Don’t push your children to be psychically active; being a couch potato might be a better option for their health.

The findings which are likely to make parents skeptical about sending their children out for a healthy physical activity were also published in the journal Environmental Research.

It was found that physically active children are exposed to 25% greater concentration of black carbon as compared to less active children.

The study went on to say that although more physically active children are less likely to have airway inflammation as compared to their less active counterparts, the exposure to pollutants, particularly black carbon exposure, carries the force to offset this advantage.

Stephanie-Desir, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the university and lead author of the study, said that while they know that physical activity is crucial and it has several health benefits, it was important to determine how increasing air pollution in urban areas are affecting physically active children.

She added, “We wanted to determine if regular exercise increases the risk of exposure to air pollution in city children and if that exposure has an impact on the lungs.”

Black carbon is a major air pollutants emitted from the diesel exhaust of cars; it carries a great potential to adversely affect the human health.

The study recruited 129 children between the age of 9 and 14 from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health longitudinal birth cohort. These children belonged to African American and Dominican origin who were living in Bronx and Northern Manhattan.

These participants had to wear a wrist motion detector which detected their physical activity over 24 hours, for a period of 6 days. The participants’ exposure to black carbon was measured by a wearable vest which contained a miniature black carbon detection device to measure the black carbon exposure before and after the physical activity.

The data for the carbon collection was collected after every 24 hours and each child’s level of fractional exhaled nitric oxide was measured. In this case, nitric oxide was used as a marker for airway inflammation. In addition to this, each child’s sensitivity was measured to indoor and outdoor allergens as well.

Out of these participants, the children who carried out a physical activity of over 60 minutes a day were considered active, while the others were considered as non-active for this study. About 60% children out of this study qualified as active. While exercise is known to reduce airway inflammation, amongst the children who had high black carbon exposure, the airway inflammation remained unaffected.

Expanding upon the current knowledge about the association of physical activity with benefits regarding respiratory health, we know now that these benefits can be significantly reduced by the exposure to air pollution.

However, more studies are warranted to explore the precise pollutant levels which can leave adverse effects on health.

This particular study comes as no shock, as just recently in September WHO released a reporting claiming that 92% of the global population breathes in polluted air. Over the years, increased industrialization and urbanization has reduced forests and green areas.

With increasing use of fossil fuels and petroleum products for transportation and other energy generation purposes, our exposure to toxic gases like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen has drastically increased. Similarly, reactive oxygen species, smog and tobacco smoke exposure cause increasing harm to our health.

On the contrary, indoor pollutants including household products, building materials like lead and formaldehyde and indoor allergens, can equally be of great harm.

Majorly affecting our respiratory system, persistent exposure to pollutants disrupts the lung functions and leads to respiratory problems like asthma, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and emphysema. Further damage can result in cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and pregnancy complications such as preterm births.

With this study, an integral part of a healthy lifestyle — is physical exercise — has come under question which is an alarming revelation on its own. It is synonymous to choosing between obesity for your child or respiratory disease for your child.

If this cannot act as an eye-opener for the global leaders, then we fear what can eventually help them wake up from their oblivion. Pollution has reached devastating levels but the global leaders have failed to bring sustainable solution to the problem. While reserving particular percentage of land for plantations, afforestation, planned urbanization, increased use of public transport and walking or using bicycles for short commutes could help us contain the pollution to less aggressive levels, it is high time we start taking pollution as an issue and solve it on priority basis.

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