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Exposure to air pollution makes people lazy, resulting in poor health

Recent research reveals a startling link between air pollution and an increase in sedentary behavior, which ultimately leads to health issues.

This disturbing study, led by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), is the first to scrutinize how regular exposure to environmental pollution correlates with physical inactivity.

Overlooked health risk of air pollution exposure

Sedentary behavior, defined as time spent in stationary activities like sitting or lying down, is notoriously associated with severe health issues, including heart disease, various cancers, and premature mortality.

Dr. Jonathan Goldney from the University of Leicester highlights a crucial aspect of this phenomenon.

“We know that air pollution is associated with cardiometabolic and respiratory diseases, and in 2019 the World Health Organization estimated that 99% of the global population breathe air containing high levels of pollutants,” Goldney said.

“Levels of air pollution may affect people’s ability to exercise, or their enjoyment of exercise. It may also be considered a risk factor for increasing levels of sedentary behavior  by encouraging sitting time indoors and discouraging active time outdoors, further increasing the risk of chronic disease in a feedback loop.”

How the study was conducted

The study focused on 644 individuals at risk of type 2 diabetes, participants in the ‘Walking Away from Type 2 Diabetes’ intervention, which encourages walking to boost physical activity.

These individuals wore accelerometers for a week at a time. This allowed the researchers, including Professor Melanie Davies CBE, Director of the NIHR Leicester BRC, to track their physical activity and sedentary time over three years.

Dr. Goldney elaborates, saying, “The participants in the study wore accelerometers around their waists for seven consecutive days during waking hours. This gave us their daily minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and sedentary time on three occasions over a three year period – and an incredible opportunity to look for any long term trends.”

The research team then juxtaposed this data with air pollution levels from the previous three years, focusing on particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, common pollutants in health research.

Notably, the study accounted for other influential factors like social deprivation and the built environment.

Air pollution, laziness, and health

The findings were significant. Although pollutant levels didn’t affect moderate-to-vigorous physical activity or step count, they correlated with an increase in sedentary time.

Specifically, a rise of 1 μgm−3 in atmospheric nitrogen dioxide was linked to an additional 1.52 minutes of sedentary time per day each year, with the highest exposure levels relating to up to 22 extra minutes of inactivity daily.

Dr. Goldney stresses the implications of these findings. “We observed this association regardless of how concentrations of pollutants were measured, including as a three-year average (year of start of observation with the two preceding years), or as the average pollutant concentration during the 12-month observation period,” he explained.

“If levels of air pollution are causing this increase in sedentary time, interventions to reduce ambient air pollution concentration such as low emissions zones could have a really positive impact on individual’s levels of sedentary behavior, and a significant effect on public health,” Dr Goldney concluded.

In summary, this study sheds light on a lesser-known consequence of air pollution, urging action to mitigate environmental pollutants for the sake of public health and well-being.

The full study was published in the Journal of Public Health.


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