Every Breath You Take

Yesterday afternoon Southwest Florida decided to join the “smoldering club” when lightning ignited a 40-acre fire in a densely forested area off of I-75. The dense stand of burning melaleuca, cypress and pine trees produced thick choking smoke which lead to closing off a large portion of the interstate. With no imminent threat to property, the fire will be allowed to run it’s course and self extinguish by our daily evening rains (curiously fire is part of the natural life cycle of our pine trees), leaving us to deal with hazy smoke filled air for the next few days.

Heading into a smokey patch on Tree Line Avenue

This made me wonder how safe is it to cycle with such lousy air quality? We put it to the test today as I joined Karen, Isobel and Tim for a 40 mile ride down Tree Line Avenue. It was a spirited ride as we typically stayed above 21 MPH, even with a very noticeable heavy haze hanging over some areas. The cycling wasn’t unpleasant to say, but you could definitely taste the smoldering earth in the back of your throat.

Concerns about air quality in cities, climate change, automobile emissions and other environmental issues have driven a recent boom in studies of air pollution’s medical effects. Most studies have not used  cyclists or  runners,  as subjects, but their results have implications for all athletes, who breathe with particular vigor and oomph.

When cycling, you’re getting several benefits. You’re not paying for the gas you would’ve spent to get around. You’re getting great cardio exercise and muscle work for your lower body. You’re seeing your community up close, and you’re contributing to a better environment for all of us in the future.

The problem comes in when you think about where you may be taking that bicycle. If you’re cycling on rural roads as we generally do here in SW Florida, air quality may not seem like much of an issue, and it may not really affect your ride. But in circumstances like today’s smoke filled air, as well as in cities, it’s a whole other story. The air pollution caused by a large volume of passing traffic can have a serious effect on cyclists and other athletes or those involved in intensive physical workouts. Medical studies show that those who are exercising hard near traffic can breathe in up to 10 times as much particulate matter, or even more, than those who are simply at rest in the same environment.

Athletes typically take in 10 to 20 times as much air, and thus pollutants, with every breath as sedentary people do. Still, virtually every expert insists that people should not stop exercising outdoors. Rather, they suggested that exercisers should keep their distance from exhaust-spewing cars and check air- quality forecasts before venturing out.

For cyclists who are biking right along with traffic, the emissions and other particulates from the exhaust can bypass the nasal lining and go deep into the lungs. This can cause some serious conditions over time. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women who lived in communities with relatively high levels of air pollution in the forms of tiny particles–also known as soot–were far more likely to die because of heart attacks than women who lived in cleaner air.

Fine particulate matter like in soot and smog, has long been recognized as a threat to cardiovascular health. Exposure over the long term causes what is similar to a premature aging of the lungs and even heart attacks. Cars, trucks and diesel buses are the main culprits in the creation of particle pollution, spewing untold millions of the microscopic pollutants into the air daily. Athletes should take precautions against particles by not exerting themselves near traffic, or, if they must use a path next to a highway, staying a few hundred yards away from vehicles.

So, what should a cyclist do to minimize this potential problem? First and foremost, avoid riding on days with heavy contamination…something we didn’t do today. For those in contaminated cities, the best option is just to find an alternative route where there is less traffic. Another option is to use a filtration device, but frankly I’s rather stay indoors on a trainer than have to wear a mask while cycling.

There is a definite trade-off between physical health from exercise and damage from air pollution, but it does not outweigh giving up outdoor exercise. Just be sensible and try to cut back on your exposure to the pollutants and their sources. The bottom line is that outdoor activity like running and cycling are healthy and, overall, good for the heart. With proper care, outdoor exercise does not have to be harmful–and, done en masse, could even ease pollution.

So in hindsight, it may not have been the best day to go on a ride, but frankly the short exposure to the smokes particulate matter comes nowhere near to outweighing the physical benefits we received from the ride.

Route: Coconut-40
Ride Time: 2:19:08
Stopped Time: 1:05:26
Distance: 41.00 miles
Average: 17.68 mph
Fastest Speed: 26.04 mph
Ascent: 464 feet
Descent: 558 feet
Calories: 2080


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