The appalling air quality in Mumbai doesn't deter long distance running enthusiasts as they tell Ronita Torcato that the benefits far outweigh the risk posed by pollution
Pollution is the biggest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, and toxic air in India kills more than a million people a year which translates into one out of every eight Indians dying pre-maturely according to a study published in the prestigious Lancet Planetary Health journal. Lancet says India's average life expectancy would be higher by 1.7 years if we had cleaner air.
Terrible air quality affects everyone, it is particularly severe on athletes preparing for events like marathons. Recently, members of the medical fraternity urged the postponement of Delhi’s half marathon (held on October 21) as air pollution had deteriorated earlier than usual, posing a risk to runners. Dr Rajendra Kesarwani, Intensivist and Chest Physician, at SRV Mamata Hospital, Dombivili agrees with the demand "as the current level of pollution is not conducive for such events."
High levels of tiny particulate matter (less than 2.5 microns in diameter) can seep into the lungs and cause multiple problems to the respiratory system. Hence, doctors warn that runners risk getting lung infections, asthma or other problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and decreased lung function. Bad air also affects the eyes, causing itching, corneal damage, irritating conjunctivitis and worsening allergies.
Not that this would deter die-hard runners from running. Does air pollution hamper performance? Yes. Does it reduce the lure of a marathon for a runner? No. Just see the hundreds of long distance runners from the world over descend on the urbs prima indis in January.
Dr.Arvind Kate, Pulmonologist at Zen Hospital, Chembur notes that the situation is worse in winters. "Due to temperature changes, these pollutants settle down at ground level. So when we venture out in the smog early in the morning, we may suffer from coughs, breathlessness and bronchitis. Asthmatics may get bad attacks. So it is recommended to avoid early morning walks and jogs. Marathon runners should avoid training in the early morning, especially during winter. They should be well hydrated. Asthmatic runners should always carry emergency inhalers with them.They should also have a good intake of fruits. During running practice, marathon runners should get their lung functions checked."
The non-athletic cannot afford to be complacent. At an international summit on pollution last year, experts submitted that indoor air pollution levels may be worse than outdoor in the absence of proper ventilation.
Like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, local doctors too warn people to avoid physical exertion even as many strive to get fit for the Mumbai Marathon in January not to speak of the spate of mini marathons taking place right now.
Striders Miles Pvt Ltd is an outdoor fitness training group patronised by “a lots of people who compete in marathons and lots of hobbyists” according to CEO Praful Uchil. Around 30% of these are women in the average age of 45. Striders members meet thrice a week at any of the club’s 22 centres in the city or at 13 outposts in various states. On Sundays, all of the Mumbai centres meet for “common training” near the NCPA at Nariman Point.
It is accepted that moderate exercise or running boosts the body's natural immune system by circulating protective cells that attack and eliminate bacteria, and viruses.
Uchil is not impressed by air pollution mortality rates and insists that “it affects the sedentary rather than those in training whose immunity levels are better. “However, various surveys and studies indicate many marathon runners report colds and other upper-respiratory infections in the fortnight following a race.
Says Uchil “People will run anyway and their immunity levels will improve by doing that. Runners visit doctors less than people who don’t exercise much. We work a lot with corporates who encourage their staff and families to get into fitness because it encourages productivity and a healthier lifestyle and reduces absenteeism.”
Uchil cites a study which concluded that the beneficial effects of exercise are more important for our health than the negative effects of air pollution. In other words, benefits of exercise outweigh the harmful effects of air pollution.
Fabian Gonsalves is a long distance running fanatic. Since he started a few years ago, he has run several half marathons and full marathons. In November he ran what many consider to be the most prestigious marathon of them all—The New York City Marathon. He is now preparing to run a half marathon in Mumbai. “Having just run the full in New York, I want to take it easy. The body otherwise doesn’t get enough time to recover,” he says.
Talking about effects of air pollution on the preparations for the Mumbai Marathon, he says, that it has no effect at all. “I ran 20 kms yesterday and did it in very good time. Some of the people I know actually achieved their best timings for the season,” he said.
There were some days last year, when the pollution was very bad and with the smog had made the ambience very hazy. “On those days, running was difficult, we found ourselves getting breathless. But thankfully this year in Mumbai hasn’t been so bad,” he says.
He also supports Uchil’s thesis that the beneficial effects of exercise — especially for those with a sedentary lifestyle — far outweigh the health problems that being exposed to the pollution might cause. “Don’t let pollution be an excuse for your not getting out and hitting your strides,” he says.