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September 30, 2015updated 02 Aug 2021 9:07am

Researchers in New York City are trying to work out exactly what cyclists breathe as they travel

By Emad Ahmed

We have that one friend who wears tight, short shorts and shaves their legs so they can attain record-breaking speeds on their prized bicycle. If you don’t, with a bit of dedication, you could be that friend. But are there any health downsides to become an avid cyclist?

A five-year investigation from Columbia University aims to find out. Led by researchers Dr Steven Chillrud and Darby Jack, the project is investigating the type of air quality that cyclists breathe as they go about their business in New York City.

What makes the study unusual is that the researchers are not only looking at air quality itself (measured through a sensor, which the cyclists will wear on a harness). They’re also looking at how much of the pollutants cyclists actually breathe in at different levels of cycling intensity (speed, to you and me).

The researchers are also studying other measures, including blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, and breathing volume, too. Simultaneously, the exact time and location will be recorded using a GPS device or smartphone. Local residents have been invited to take part in the study, and to wear the sensors not only while they cycle, but also as they work and sleep.

The researchers’ hypothesis is that increased exposure to air pollutants leads to greater heart rate variability and episodic blood pressure increases. The theory is that, as there would be less oxygen present in more heavily polluted air, the heart rate would have to increase in order to pump the same amount of oxygen around the body.

Cities are more prone to heavy air pollution than rural or suburban areas, due to the combination of condensed road networks, tall buildings and slow-moving traffic. And some road uses are particularly prone to breathing those pollutants in: a person’s breathing rate can change with more exercise or if they’re more vulnerable, such as asthma sufferers.

New York City’s own official estimates suggest that at least 2,000 residents die prematurely from air pollutants. The study’s findings could help shine a light on why, as well as offering lessons for other major cities.

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Exercise such as cycling is still an overwhelming positive, but this experiment could help cyclists share the best routes to ride in the city, and the best time to travel during the day. The goal of this study is to translate these tips into a map, and potentially an app which could help cyclists travel more safely throughout the city.

Emad Ahmed is a science report for our sister site, the New Statesman.

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