As NBC News reported, researchers from Imperial College London studied 120 people, aged 60 or older, who walked in lush Hyde Park or along traffic-clogged Oxford Street. The negative effect may well be the same in younger people, say the authors, and it reinforces the urgency of reducing emissions in city streets. The improvements from walking along Oxford Street were less but not insignificant, at 4.6 percent for healthy volunteers, 16 percent for COPD volunteers, and 8.6 percent for those with heart disease. Two-thirds of the volunteers had been diagnosed with either heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), while the others were healthy (no pre-existing heart or lung condition).
Participants were randomly assigned to walk for two hours on London's Oxford Street, a major road and shopping district in the city, or in the open spaces of the 350-acre Hyde Park, just a mile away.
Transient subjection to traffic exhaust in built up locations like New York City's Broadway or Chicago's Michigan Avenue can annul the positive outcomes of a two hour walk which would have benefitted the heart and lungs of these people.
Writing an editorial in the medical journal, University of Edinburgh lecturers Sarah Stock and Tom Clemens described the results as "concerning", adding: "A global perspective reveals something approaching a public health catastrophe".
Air pollution levels were monitored before and during their walk, and each participant's lung capacity and arterial stiffness was measured before and after. They found cardiovascular benefits of exercise along Oxford Street are completely negated by exposure to air pollution for over 60s.
Interestingly, the study found that the volunteers with heart disease who were being treated with medication were less negatively affected by the pollution.
The study found everyone in the park group benefited, with lung capacity improving within an hour and persisting for 24 hours. However, he added that research suggests that "we might advise older adults to walk in green spaces, away from built-up areas and pollution from traffic". It can affect the lungs and hearts of the elderly severely, researchers have warned.
"I think it might well do".
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: 'How very sad that our streets are so traffic-polluted that older people trying to keep themselves healthy are in fact doing themselves harm.
"Our findings suggest that healthy people, as well as those with chronic cardiorespiratory disorders, should minimize walking on streets with high levels of pollution because this curtails or even reverses the cardiorespiratory benefits of exercise", the researchers wrote.
"The findings suggest that air pollution from road traffic in London is adversely affecting foetal growth", the study's authors concluded. "It's important to that people continue to exercise". "In the United Kingdom physical inactivity is the fourth largest cause of disease and mortality and contributes to around 37,000 premature deaths in England every year".
"Even in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world - with pollution levels 10 times those in London - people would need to cycle over five hours per week before the pollution risks outweigh the health benefits".
According to a UN Children's Fund (Unicef) report, the ones who are most vulnerable are children, whose brains could get permanently damaged because of the pollution.
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