Cycling and Walking are Healthy Even in Polluted Cities
Physical activity benefits of active travel outweighed the harm caused by air pollution in all but the most extreme air pollution concentrations.
Tainio, Marko et al. (2016). Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking? Preventive Medicine. In press. Available online 5 May 2016. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.02.002
Active travel (cycling, walking) is beneficial for the health due to increased physical activity (PA). However, active travel may increase the intake of air pollution, leading to negative health consequences. We examined the risk–benefit balance between active travel related PA and exposure to air pollution across a range of air pollution and PA scenarios.
The health effects of active travel and air pollution were estimated through changes in all-cause mortality for different levels of active travel and air pollution. Air pollution exposure was estimated through changes in background concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ranging from 5 to 200 μg/m3. For active travel exposure, we estimated cycling and walking from 0 up to 16 h per day, respectively. These refer to long-term average levels of active travel and PM2.5 exposure.
For the global average urban background PM2.5 concentration (22 μg/m3) benefits of PA by far outweigh risks from air pollution even under the most extreme levels of active travel. In areas with PM2.5 concentrations of 100 μg/m3, harms would exceed benefits after 1 h 30 min of cycling per day or more than 10 h of walking per day. If the counterfactual was driving, rather than staying at home, the benefits of PA would exceed harms from air pollution up to 3 h 30 min of cycling per day. The results were sensitive to dose–response function (DRF) assumptions for PM2.5 and PA.