Regular exercise may mitigate the heart health risks of air pollution

On Monday, we talked about the benefits of omega-3s in the fight to protect your brain from the damaging effects of air pollution. So today, let’s bring that discussion full circle, courtesy of some new research that recently appeared in the journal Circulation.

Because if there’s one recommendation I make at least as often as a daily fish oil supplement, it’s daily exercise.

Pollution ups the pressure

For this study, researchers followed more than 140,000 Taiwanese adults with high blood pressure for an average of five years. They categorized each subject according to weekly exercise habits: inactive, moderately active, or highly active.

They also identified each subject’s level of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) exposure—a measure of air pollution exposure—according to three categories: low, moderate, or high.

Researchers defined high blood pressure as 140/90 mm Hg. (Though it’s important to note that—in the United States, at least—guidance on that threshold has changed. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology now state that any number above 130/80 mm Hg warrants an official hypertension diagnosis.)

But here’s what they found: Highly active people with low levels of pollution exposure had a lower risk of developing hypertension. Whereas people who were inactive and exposed to highly polluted air had a higher risk. (No surprises there!)

It was also unsurprising to see that each level increase in PM 2.5 raised participants’ risk of hypertension by 38 percent. Making it clear that addressing the problem of air pollution is essential not only for brain health, but for heart health too.

But the news wasn’t all bad…

Regular exercise still delivered

Results showed that each physical activity level increase lowered risk of hypertension by six percent. And while this may not sound like a lot, it’s worth noting that these benefits held regardless of subjects’ level of pollution exposure.

Moderate exercise lowered hypertension risk by four percent compared to people who didn’t exercise at all. And among highly active people, the risk of high blood pressure dropped by 13 percent.

This is the largest study yet to look at the combined impact of air pollution and regular exercise on hypertension risk. And needless to say, that’s a big deal. Especially when you consider that more than 90 percent of the global population lives in a place where air quality falls well below World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.

Now, does this mean you should avoid exercising outside when there are poor air quality warnings? Well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. But don’t avoid exercise altogether. These results underscore the vital importance of physical activity in your efforts to control blood pressure.

So, as always, my recommendation is this: Get up and get moving. All it takes is 20 minutes of moderate physical activity daily to gain a whole host of healthy benefits. And even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s high time we all get creative with our exercise routines. You can start by going up and down the stairs, or by walking around your neighborhood or yard after dinner—provided you are social distancing and wearing a mask. Or you can even stream free workout videos in the comfort of your own home! The opportunities are endless…

Because at the end of the day, inside or outside, exercise saves lives. So whatever you do, just keep moving.


“Regular exercise helps prevent high blood pressure, even in areas of high air pollution.” Science Daily, 07/20/2020. (