Air pollution in Hong Kong is one of the biggest issues facing the city. When we breathe in dirty air, the air pollution dives deep into our lungs, significantly increasing the likelihood of damage to the respiratory tract. A publication by Physicians for Social Responsibility explains that [a]ir pollution exposure can trigger new cases of asthma, exacerbate (worsen) a previously-existing respiratory illness, and provoke development or progression of chronic illnesses including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. Air pollutants also significantly harm lung development, creating an additional risk factor for developing lung diseases later in life.” To make matters worse, the air pollution dosage during exercise is much higher than during “rest” because of a higher ventilatory rate and both nasal and oral breathing (breathing only through your nose gives added filtration). However, without exercise, our bodies will turn frail.
What happens physiologically when you breathe polluted air? Let’s start with how your lungs actually work: when you breathe, air travels into your lungs to little sacks that deliver oxygen to your blood stream. In healthy lungs, air moves freely. When you breathe polluted air, “dust” particles can clog the passageway and make your lungs less efficient. This will have a direct impact on your performance both inside and outside of the gym.
When living in a city with air quality below “healthy” levels leaves little room for action. But, there are things you can do. First, get a home air purification system. The best is a device called the IQAir, which was used by athletes during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The models are not cheap, however, and if that’s a major concern brands such as Alen offer similar benefits to IQAir at half of the price or you can read the Best Air Purifiers 2016 to see which is right for you.
The next action you can take (for exceptionally less money) is to increase your intake of vitamin E and other antioxidants. A new study from King's College London and the University of Nottingham has found an association between the amount of vitamin E in the body, exposure to particulate pollution and lung function. The paper adds to growing evidence from previous studies suggesting that some vitamins may play a role in helping to protect the lungs from air pollution. Vitamin E can be found in foods such as avocado and spinach, almonds, olives, and kale. Dr. Michael Colgan of the Colgan Institute, consultant for countless Olympic-level athletes, comments that vitamin E, along with other antioxidants may help to reduce the inflammation in the lungs caused by air pollution (Dr. Michael Colgan, Optimum Sports Nutrition © 1993, p.62-63). Other ways to protect yourself include exercising early in the morning before air pollution levels rise.
The takeaway is that although we live in a polluted city, there are both mechanical and chemical ways to help reduce the effects to our performance and longevity.