Air Pollution May Negate Exercise Brain Benefits

Staying physically active in older age is key to preventing chronic illness, preserving function and mobility, and protecting brain health.  But new studies have found that air pollution counteracts the brain benefits of exercise – avoiding outdoor and indoor pollutants is important to help prevent cognitive health decline among older adults. 

According to a recent New York Times report, people who exercised in even moderately polluted air did not show the brain benefits of exercise linked with a lower risk for developing dementia.  People who lived in areas with little air pollution and who exercised vigorously showed larger amounts of gray matter and fewer white matter lesions compared with men and women who did not exercise strenuously.  

The findings of the latest studies, published in the journal Neurology and in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggest that while exercise is highly beneficial to brain health, paying attention to air quality is also important to protect cognitive well-being in older age.   

Researchers recommend avoiding exercising along busy highways – automobile exhaust is among the worst pollutants for health.  Before exercising outdoors, people can check their local Air Quality Index at or the Government of Canada website here.  If people are exercising indoors, check with the gym or studio to see if an air filtration system has been installed.   If tolerable while exercising, a surgical or N95 mask may filter out unhealthy particulates.  

Exercising is also important for cardiovascular health and even if air quality isn’t ideal, regular physical activity offers many benefits.  Air quality fluctuates throughout the day, check daily forecasts in your area to determine if the air is unhealthy in your community.  Avoid burning firewood and using gasoline-powered lawn care equipment which can also contribute to air pollution.  

Learn more about how to protect yourself from air pollution by visiting the American Lung Association website here.