Are Utah Athletes Being Negatively Affected By Air Pollution?

The University of Utah attracts thousands of sports lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and college athletes every year. The mountainous terrain, beautiful landscapes and PAC 12 University keeps attracting more and more athletes. Not all is beautiful though as the pollution and inversion in Salt Lake give way to a cloud of smog that blankets the city. Could the poor air quality in Salt Lake be affecting the health and performance of University of Utah college athletes as well as yours?

Is the Air Pollution Really that Bad for Health?

Air Pollution in Salt Lake City isn’t quite at the level of Beijing and other Major cities in Asia, however, how does it rank comparatively? Salt Lake City ranks 7th out on the top 25 most polluted metropolitan areas in the world by short-term air particle pollution. How could this be affecting you? Over 2000 scientific studies have been published during the last decade that routinely found that the to air quality along the Wasatch Front leads to thousands of strokes, cases of heart disease and respiratory ailments each year.

Health Effects of Air Pollution

  • Potential for increased risk of heart disease
  • Damages the smaller blood vessels in your body. This includes the vessels surrounding eyes and the heart
  • Vessels are dilated which resulted in the muscles not getting enough oxygen and blood to perform well
  • Particles make their way to the lungs and some particles stay in the lungs which causes irritation and inflammation. Due to the small size of these particles they can pass through the bodily defenses and make their way into the bloodstream

What is it exactly though that is causing these health effects? The answer to that is particulate matter and Ozone. Particulate matter is categorized into two categories, PM 2.5 and PM 10. The 2.5 and 10 refer to the diameter of the particles. These are particles are smaller than the width of a human hair (McCloy).

The cause of PM 10 are crushing and grinding operations such as Kennecott, wood burning, and gravel pit to name a few. These are bigger more coarse particles that the lung is more capable of cleaning though some still get trapped. PM 2.5 is a much smaller particle that is caused from all combustion. This includes cars, power plants, and industrial processes like refining oil for gasoline. Because of their small size, PM 2.5 particles go deeper into the lungs into smaller places where they get trapped. This is where the biggest concern is because it can cause irreversible lung damage.

The other major factor the effects the health effects of pollution on the body is ozone. Most of know that the ozone is a layer of the atmosphere that protects us from the sun’s harmful UV rays. But when we talk about ozone in this context it refers to the toxic gas that is created when the ozone mixes with our emissions. A chemical reaction takes place and much like PM 2.5 the Ozone get buried deep into the lungs and affects the transport of oxygen into the body. A serious health concern to all, but a possible performance threat to athletes.

Air Pollution and Outdoor Exercise

Air quality becomes increasingly important when exercising outdoors. Many University of Utah athletics such as the Utah football team routinely practice outdoors for multiple hours and could actually be exposing their athletes to too much pollution. The University of Utah sits at an elevation of 4,500 feet above sea level, it is recommended that exercise levels should be reduced to 80-90% what would be an athlete’s 100% effort at sea level. Add the pollution into the mix and athletes could be over-exercising. Though this likely won’t affect overall performance by great amounts, any small advantage or disadvantage at the collegiate level is important. The air pollution also affects the other sports team that practice outdoors in Utah like Real Salt Lake and The Salt Lake Bees.

Too Much Exposure to pollution particles causes irritation and inflammation of the lungs, a nightmare for all athletes. Athletes typically breathe in between 10-20 times more air and because of this are breathing in between 10-20 times more pollution. Though it may seem as if outdoor exercise could be doing a lot of harm, if done for the proper amount of time it is completely safe to work out outdoors without seeing any health side effects. Follow these exercise tips to ensure that your next workout won’t harm you.

Exercise Tips

  • Use the MyAir Health app to see how long you can safely exercise outdoors
    • The MyAir Health app is the easiest way to make sure that you don’t over exercise during bad air quality days. The app takes into account your information such as age, and resting heart rate, and combines it with the EPA’s Air Quality index to present you with an easy to understand number on how long you can exercise outdoors every hour.
    • If you have children, put in their information to see how long you should be having them outside. Since young children are still developing, the pollution puts children at higher risk of being negatively affected.
  • Don’t let the air scare you
    • Though the debate is still ongoing, the current evidence suggests that exercising even in poor air has less negative health effects than not exercising at all. So get outside and enjoy your run.
  • If sensitive to air/ have asthma
    • Because the MyAir Health app is personalized, you can see which days are too polluted for you to work out outdoors to avoid having problems with your breathing. Instead, Hop on the treadmill or do your favorite indoor exercise.
  • Get to the mountains on bad days
    • On those days that the air quality is very bad, you can always escape to the mountains to get away from the pollution. Enjoy the beauty of Utah and take a nice hike in Park City or in the Cottonwood Canyons.


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