2022 Winter Olympics: Let’s Talk about Air Pollution in China

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing has had China pulling out all the stops to cut down on air pollution, which can impact people more during intense physical activity.

2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – The Air Quality Problem

Held in one of the most polluted cities in the world – Beijing, the 2022 Winter Olympics has faced a significant hurdle in the form of air pollution.

At the time of writing, the air quality view at the location of the games was not looking too healthy.

China already declared a ‘war against air pollution’ back in 2014, and while it did manage to reduce its air quality problem, the country still has a long way to go.

The country is putting in major efforts to cut down on harmful emissions for the Olympic games period: relocating hundreds of polluting enterprises, planting thousands of hectares of trees, building new wind and solar farms to power the entire event, and even deploying 700 hydrogen-fuelled vehicles to facilitate a more carbon-neutral zone.  

China also tackled a similar air pollution challenge during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but the challenge is greater this time, as the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery is driving a greater increase in emissions than usual: Beijing’s average PM2.5 pollution in the 1st quarter of 2021 was 21% higher than in 2019 (!)

How Air Pollution Impacts Us During Exercise 

We already know air pollution impacts our health, and that doing anything in highly polluted areas isn’t good for us. However, exercise, in particular, forces us to breathe faster, inhale deeper, and take in larger amounts of air. We’re also more likely to breathe through our mouth than our nose (the body’s natural air filtration mechanism) during exercise. Essentially, our heavier breathing puts us at more risk of inhaling harmful pollution around us.

Exercising in highly polluted areas is especially risky for people with asthma, diabetes, or heart or lung conditions, as well as the youth and elderly.

Pollution Exposure During Exercise: What Could Happen?

The EPA conducted a preliminary review of 16 scientific papers on short-term health effects from exposure to air pollution during outdoor exercise. Over half of the literature demonstrated negative health effects, with lung function impairment the most common.

Research has also found that exposure to high levels of air pollution during physical activity can cause coughs, pains in the chest, difficulties in breathing, sore throat, headaches, and decreased lung function. In addition, some pollutants like O3 can produce oxidative stress, directly damaging the lungs, and potentially contributing to asthma development.

Why Athletes Worry About Air Pollution

While no one is safe from the harmful effects of air pollution, athletes could potentially be more at risk, and negatively impacted in terms of performance.

One study conducted on the German professional football league found that a 1% increase in PM10 led to a decrease in performance, measured by the number of passes made by the soccer players. Performance decreased significantly if PM10 concentration exceeded 50 micrograms µg/m3.  (For reference, the WHO’s recommended 24-hour max is 45…)

Air pollution impacts even athletes of the highest tier: In 2018, LeBron James famously suffered headaches due to California wildfires that also forced him to evacuate his home.

BUT! Some Exercise Is Still Better Than No Exercise, Right? 

When exercising in low to moderately polluted areas, the positive health impact of physical activity probably still makes it worth doing, despite the poor air quality. Researchers have found regular exercise helps reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, despite the health risks posed by air pollution: High-level exercisers saw a 13% lower risk of high blood pressure than non-exercisers, and even people who only exercised moderately had a 4% lower risk. 

One study looked at those who increased their exercise frequency outdoors during high levels of PM2.5 and discovered a 33% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to those who were completely physically inactive. 

And yet – in the same study, people exposed to low to moderate levels of PM10 pollution who stopped exercising experienced a 38% or 22% increased risk of cardiovascular disease compared to people who maintained regular exercise.

So what to do?…

Exercise in an Environmentally Informed Way 

As advised by respiratory professionals, the best scenario for healthy exercise outdoors is to do it as regularly as possible in an environmentally informed way. This way we can have our cake and eat it too: Health benefits of outdoor exercise and minimal exposure to unhealthy air.

Some fitness brands and thought leaders like outdoor activity pioneer AllTrails and the hit fitness & wellness wearable Whoop are already considering the importance of this wider context when performing physical activity outdoors and implementing data-driven insights in their products.

We believe going forward, every fitness app and provider will turn to live and predictive environmental insights to help them better inform their users. With this information at their fingertips, more individuals will be able to:

  • Regularly track outdoor air quality based on their location before starting the activity
  • Opt for cleaner running routes, preferably not near traffic or with fewer tall roadside buildings that can trap pollutants 
  • Avoid running close to vehicle exhaust to minimize inhalation of toxic emissions
  • Choose indoor activities over cardio-heavy outdoor exercises during peak pollution hours
  • Plan exercise schedule around air quality forecasts and avoid rush hour traffic
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Paul Walsh Weather Man
Paul Walsh

Previously at IBM and The Weather Company, I have decades of experience in helping large consumer businesses re-imagine how they systemically leverage weather and climate data in both supply and demand chain systems -- creating integrated enterprise processes that are more responsive and more resilient in the face of increasingly impactful weather conditions. My observations have been featured in the US on The Weather Channel and CNBC, & I've been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and The New York Times. Connect with me!