Exercising in polluted areas may have adverse effects on the brain, study suggests

Jogging is only good for you if the air is clean: Exercising in polluted areas can harm the brain, study suggests

  • Running helps reverse some of brain aging linked to increased risk of dementia
  • But when people operate in polluted areas, they don’t see the same benefit
  • Those who were most active had less damage to the innermost layer of the brain


Jogging is good for the brain, but not if you do it in a polluted area, researchers discovered.

Outdoor exercise, such as running, tennis or soccer, helps reverse some of the brain aging associated with an increased risk of dementia.

But when people operate in polluted areas, they don’t see the same benefit, a study finds.

Researchers looked at more than 8,600 Britons whose physical activity was measured with a wrist-worn fitness tracker for a week.

Jogging is good for the brain, but not if you do it in a polluted area, researchers found (file image)

Those who were most active had fewer white matter lesions — damage to the innermost layer of the brain that connects the different regions.

But that was only the case if they lived in a low-pollution area, with equally active people in places with dirtier air who didn’t see such a brain boost.

Small pollution particles can potentially lead to inflammation in the body or damage to blood vessels, which can affect the brain.

dr. Melissa Furlong, who led the study at the University of Arizona, said, “Intense exercise can increase exposure to air pollution, and previous studies have shown adverse effects of air pollution on the brain.”

The study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at people ages 40 to 69 and the pollution levels where they lived. Researchers looked at those who got up to 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, those who did up to 30 minutes, and those who were active for 30 minutes or more.

They were then compared with those who did not do any vigorous physical activity at all.

The more active people were, the greater their gray matter volume, which may help protect against dementia.

MRI scans showed that more active people in low-pollution areas also had less extensive white matter lesions, which are more common in older people and increase the risk of stroke or dementia.

But the effect on white matter lesions, even when age and gender were taken into account, was not seen in those living in the areas with the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollutants.

dr. Furlong said: ‘Public policies could be used to address people’s exposure to air pollution during exercise. For example, because a significant amount of air pollution comes from traffic, promoting running or cycling along paths away from heavy traffic may be more beneficial.’

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