Pollution Puts Athletes At Risk

BY ON May 21, 2012

Two female athletes get ready to cycle.

I am on a new fitness kick and as such, my daughter has convinced me to start taking spinning classes. I prefer to exercise outdoors, but I am finding that I love cycling class. During a recent class, my lungs had an unexpected encounter. On this typical evening, I entered my cycling class, prepped and mounted my bike. The instructor is a good leader, with a solid workout plan. She chooses great music, and she even weaves in music videos on the overhead screen for the perfect combination of motivation and distraction. I am happy. The perfect workout begins…

But five minutes into the warm-up, a woman (who I shall henceforth refer to as Smelly Woman) comes in. And of all the empty bikes at her disposal, she chooses the one right next to me. I am already in a zone of concentration. So I don’t even notice Smelly Woman at first. She does not register in my consciousness…that is, until her perfume makes its way over to me. And now I am surrounded by it. In the context of another setting—like the cosmetic counter of a department store, this scent might have been pleasant. But here, it is not. And normally I am oblivious to another person’s perfume. I usually have no such sensitivities.

Aside from the annoyance (who douses themselves with perfume before an exercise class?), I am surprised to find that I am starting to get congested. I have to keep clearing my throat and swallowing. Pretty soon, I am having unusual difficulty catching my breath…unusual even for an exercise class. I realize that I am having a mild allergic reaction to the scent of Smelly Woman.

I happen to be taking this class with my daughter, who has asthma. She is on the bike on the other side of me. I am increasingly afraid that the scent is going to reach her. If it does, it will be all over for her. She is very sensitive to perfume. If this perfume reaches her, as it has reached me, she will start to wheeze, cough and have difficulty breathing. In no time, she’ll be in search of her inhaler, which is all the way upstairs in her locker. But I don’t want to bring Smelly Woman to my daughter’s attention and plant a seed of worry. She is churning away on her bike and totally consumed in the workout. So I suffer in silence and watch her for signs of distress. Thankfully, they never come. Somehow, she escapes the perfume invasion and has an enjoyable workout, unlike her mother.

Pollution can have an enormous effect on exercise performance, and not just for those with asthma and allergies. Since athletes and active people take in much more air than the average (more sedentary) person, they are more adversely impacted by high levels of pollution. This is at the root of considerable concern surrounding the upcoming summer Olympics in London.

London has the worst air quality of any capital city in Europe for both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Its nitrogen dioxide levels (the toxin responsible for ozone) are around the same as Beijing’s. And though the Chinese capital took emergency action to cut pollution by stringently restricting traffic when it hosted the Olympics four years ago, so far there’s no indication that London intends  to do the same. London is already a health hazard in regards to pollution.. The pollution level right now is at an all time high. As the Olympics approach, with its estimated 11 million visitors and 3 million extra car trips on the busiest day alone, Olympics athletes will likely find the dirty air to be a challenge. Even athletes who have no respiratory sensitivities may find their athletic performances marred by pulmonary irritation, chest pain and decreased lung capacity. Not only are they at risk of slower running times and less record-breaking performances, they could very well fall ill and be unable to compete. Athletes who have asthma should come prepared for the worst.

The situation in London really highlights the worldwide mess we’ve made for ourselves. At a time when American’s push to be more active and less sedentary—to get out and get into shape—many of us who live in polluted cities find ourselves at greater risk of respiratory distress when we exercise. It’s a sad and unfortunate irony. We are forced to weigh the benefits and costs of outdoor exercise to our overall health.

On my way to the gym today, the freeway marquee shows an ozone warning – today is a Yellow day in Houston—moderately unhealthy. The logical conclusion is to exercise indoors—my spinning class. But then, there’s Smelly Woman polluting my indoor air (see a full discussion of indoor air pollution HERE and HERE). I call my daughter, who is meeting me, and remind her to bring her inhaler to class.

HERE are tips on exercising outdoors.


TOPICS: African-American Community, Asthma, Motherhood, Pollution, Texas