28/06/2013 08:38 BST | Updated 27/08/2013 06:12 BST

Exercise Your Right for Clean Air


This week, I caught a glimpse of the future. I came across an image of a muscular, keep-fit fanatic, exercising outside in a gloomy Singapore wearing just shorts and a hepa filter mask.

As air pollution in Singapore hit record highs last week due to numerous forest fires, the country's Prime Minister, Lee Hsein Loong, urged people to remain indoors. There have been only a few times in my life that I've been advised not to venture outside, usually because of bad weather or an imminent storm - something unlikely to last more than a few hours.

Yet to stay inside because of hazardous smog, when the air we breathe is not safe, is quite simply scary. And the image of this man still trying to keep fit by exercising in a hepa mask is a visual oxymoron. But could this be our future?

Air pollution is a major risk to health, contributing to the global burden of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. It causes breathing problems, triggers asthma and reduces lung function, even if exposed for only a short time. Vehicles, combustion of fossil fuels, industries, forest fires and deliberate biomass burning are all to blame for air pollution across the planet. And as we emit more and more air pollutants, as industries grow and the way we live and travel change, air pollution is not something that we can eradicate, or even reduce, easily.

So, coming back to my lonesome, exercising man in a hepa mask, will air pollution become partly responsible for sedentary lifestyles in the future? Will people avoid going for a run outdoors or perhaps choose the bus to work instead of cycling or walking, in fear of their health?

This has been playing on my mind for the past few days now, as more news stories emerged highlighting air pollution levels across the world. In particular, it emerged that London's North Circular (a 25.7-mile long road that crosses north London) has the worst traffic fumes of any road in London, and four of the city's five worst roads for air pollution pass through some of the poorest areas of east London.

On the same day, a separate news story revealed that one in four London road users during the morning rush hour is a cyclist. At first, I was thrilled to read this - I can't encourage people enough to be active. However, it did make me consider the exposure to air pollution these cyclists endure each day. It seems ironic that those cycling to work to keep fit and healthy could actually be risking their health in other ways.

Although the air pollution in London and other cities across the world is not currently at a level that can seriously affect your health, it could well be one day if Governments, policy makers and system shapers don't take action. Although we can all do our bit, by walking more, using less electricity, buying local produce and taking shorter showers (just to name a few), exposure to air pollution is largely beyond the control of individuals. It requires action at national, regional and global levels.

If we're to encourage physical activity, outdoor pursuits and active travel to work, air quality should not be a hindrance. To the bikers of London, I'd say, keep going - you're setting a great example. The more individuals that chose to cycle and walk, the more society will need to sit up, pay attention and respond.