12 May, 2020

Exercising in Polluted Cities: Are We Doing More Harm Than Good?

In partnership with Airhead

We all know exercise is good for you… So far, no public outrage with this statement (we hope!). Whatever your age, the scientific evidence is undisputed that it leads to a healthier and happier life. However, we also know that pollution is bad for you. It is known to cause or has been associated with cancer, bronchitis, strokes and dementia, to name but a few. 

This has led many to ask the question; am I doing more harm than good when I exercise in polluted cities? This question probably springs to mind whenever you have peddled past a large truck or bus and gulped down a big lungful of foul smelling air.

As we exercise, the depth and rate of our breathing increases, therefore a runner will accumulate more pollutants in their body than a walker covering the same distance or time. Indeed, studies have shown that athletes that train in urban areas do have higher levels of chemicals in their blood than those in rural areas.

This all favours the argument that we should hang up our trainers and cleats in favour of a good book and a comfy train ride. But not so fast…

For those of us who know that giving up the bike actually means squeezing onto a tightly packed bus or train and nestling our face into someone’s armpit, there is good news. The general consensus of studies completed suggests that the benefits of exercising outweigh the negative effects of pollution. Phew…

The researchers found that a pollution concentration of 95mg/m3 was required to negate the benefits of 30 minutes of cycling. This sort of concentration is only found in less than 1% of cities around the world and for an average urban environment you would have to cycle for 7 hours to reach the point where the build-up of pollutants in your body starts to outweigh the benefits of exercising.

So, unless you’re a professional cyclist training for the Tour de France only in cities, the evidence would suggest that you should keep cycling, running and walking to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

However, breathing in less pollution while exercising is always preferable!

We listed 4 simple and efficient steps to minimise your exposure to pollution while exercising:

  1.  Time your workouts carefully – if you have the luxury of flexible working hours try to commute outside of rush hour and complete your longer and particularly strenuous workouts on a weekend.
  2. Choose a new route – if you’re good at navigating the city or that you’re well equipped (*wink wink*) you can reduce your exposure to pollution by 30-50% by choosing parks or residential streets with lower traffic.
  3. Wear a pollution mask – if busy roads and exercising in rush hour can’t be avoided, consider wearing a pollution mask. Studies show the effectiveness of a mask is drastically improved when it has an airtight seal around the face, so choose carefully.
  4. Monitor air quality online – if it is really poor, consider moving your workout indoors.

When swapping the car or public transport for walking, cycling or running you not only improve your own health but also the health of the planet.

The more you exercise, the better the air quality, the healthier you will be. This is what you’d call a truly virtuous circle!


Bringing you more knowledge about the challenges of pollution for cyclists, a blog partnership with

A little while ago, Elliot, one of the founders at Airhead got in touch with SmartHalo as they were working on a new project: a revolutionary anti-pollution mask for cyclists. 

We thought their project was innovative, purposeful and so on point for our community. We’ve wanted to tackle the topic of pollution while cycling for a while as we know many of you are urban cyclists. Who better to help our community learn more about it than them!

Airhead founders, tell us more about your story:

Established in 2019, we created Airhead to protect people from the air pollution crisis in cities. 

With a combined dislike for the hot, uncomfortable and often ineffective masks available on the market, we left our jobs in the corporate world to take on the fight against air pollution.

Following a tonne of research to understand what was required to create an effective pollution mask, we received government funding and have been working with design experts at Brunel University for 9 months to create our revolutionary pollution mask. 

We are ready to share it with the world. Check out our Kickstarter campaign here!

We wish them the best of luck!

Curious about the SmartHalo collection?