The Dirty Secret of Outdoor Exercise
If you're a swimmer, you're not off the hook: Oceans, lakes, and rivers can contain overflows of untreated sewage. Play golf? Look out for fertilizers and pesticides on the course. But no matter what your sport, the very air you breathe is cause for concern. Ozone pollution (basically smog), particulate matter (microscopic particles from factories and construction sites), sulfur dioxide (a by-product of industrial facilities and some power plants), and carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide (gases from vehicle emissions, generators, lawn mowers, and so on) can cause respiratory difficulties. "Each one affects the body differently, but they all can hinder your workout," says Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research institute in Boston that examines how pollution affects health. Ozone, for example, can irritate the throat and respiratory tract and inflame the lining of the lungs. Particulate matter and carbon monoxide have been associated with hardening of the arteries.
Unlike golf courses or polluted lakes, air is impossible to avoid. The most recent data show that six in 10 Americans -- 186 million people -- live in places where the air poses a health threat, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). Despite a burgeoning green movement and progress in cutting pollutants, nearly every major metropolitan area is burdened with significant air pollution: Of the 25 cities with the worst ozone pollution, 16 recorded higher ozone levels in the ALA's 2009 report compared with the year before. This plus the steady decrease in gym membership (down approximately 21 percent in 2009, according to the American Council on Exercise) and an increase in people turning to outdoor activities (Road Runners Club of America saw 10 to 30 percent growth in race participation from 2008 to 2009, for instance) has some experts worried about the well-being of outdoor exercisers.
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