Air pollution may diminish the benefits derived from physical exercise for brain health

A study in Neurology found that people who engage in strenuous physical exercise in areas that involve greater air pollution might not reap the benefits from the exercise where it pertains to certain markers of brain disease.

According to researchers, the study examined white matter hyperintensities, in which larger gray matter volumes and smaller white matter hyperintensity volumes are indications of good brain health.

Derived from the UK Biobank, the nearly 8,000 participants in mid-adulthood assessed had been previously exposed to pollution. Air pollution exposure was split into four groups based on lowest to highest.

Among each participant, their physical exercise was measured over a span of one week using an accelerometer.

Researchers say strenuous exercise might heighten exposure to air pollution, which in turn can result in adverse effects on brain health.

“We did show that physical activity is associated with improved markers of brain health in areas with lower air pollution. However, some beneficial effects essentially disappeared for vigorous physical activity in areas with the highest levels of air pollution. That’s not to say people should avoid exercise,” according to Melissa Furlong, co-author of the study.

“Overall, the effect of air pollution on brain health was modest—roughly equivalent to half the effect of one year of aging, while the effects of vigorous activity on brain health were much larger—approximately equivalent to being three years younger.”

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