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Study finds exposure to air pollution associated with increase in sedentary time

January 9, 2024

Long-term exposure to current levels of UK air pollution has been found to be associated with an annual increase of up to 22 minutes of sedentary time each day, in a study published in the Journal of Public Health

Researchers based at the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) discovered this trend in what is thought to be the first study of its kind to closely examine the relationship between the levels of background pollution people are regularly exposed to in the UK environment, and their levels of physical activity and sedentary behaviour.  

Sedentary behaviour is the amount of time spent lying, reclining, sitting or standing still. Higher levels of sedentary behaviour are known to be linked to poorer health including heart disease, several types of cancer and an earlier death. 

Pollution affects people's ability to exercise

Dr Jonathan Goldney from the University of Leicester explained: “We know that air pollution is associated with cardiometabolic and respiratory diseases, and in 2019 the World Health Organization estimated that 99% of the global population breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. 

“Levels of air pollution may affect people’s ability to exercise, or their enjoyment of exercise. It may also be considered a risk factor for increasing levels of sedentary behaviour  by encouraging sitting time indoors and discouraging active time outdoors, further increasing the risk of chronic disease in a feedback loop.”

In this study, the team, which included Director of the NIHR Leicester BRC, Professor Melanie Davies CBE, took a close look at observations made on 644 people at risk of type 2 diabetes taking part in the ‘Walking Away from type 2 diabetes’ behavioural intervention, which aimed to increase physical activity through walking.   

Dr Goldney added: “The participants in the study wore accelerometers around their waists for seven consecutive days during waking hours. This gave us their daily minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and sedentary time on three occasions over a three year period – and an incredible opportunity to look for any long term trends.” 

Annual average levels of the most measured air pollutants in health research (long-term particulate matter with diameter of less than or equal to 2.5 μm (micrometres), less than or equal to 10 μm, and nitrogen dioxide) from the year the participant entered the study and the preceding two years (sourced from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs’ Pollution Climate Mapping model) were then compared to the annual change in accelerometer-measured sedentary time.  

After taking into account important factors like social deprivation and measures of the built environment, the associations between long-term particulate matter with diameter less than or equal to 2.5 μm (micrometres), 10 μm, and nitrogen dioxide and annual change in accelerometer measured sedentary time and physical activity were examined. 

Pollutant levels don't affect moderate to vigorous activity

Dr Goldney said: “Although the levels of pollutants we measured were not associated with a change in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity or number of steps taken, we found that they were associated with an annual increase in sedentary time.  

“An increase of 1 μgm−3 in the average concentration of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide was associated with an increase in sedentary time of 1.52 minutes per day per year in the most conservative model. And across the group, our findings suggest that high levels of exposure to nitrogen dioxide were associated with up to 22 minutes per day of increased sedentary time per year. 

“We observed this association regardless of how concentrations of pollutants were measured, including as a three-year average (year of start of observation with the two preceding years), or as the average pollutant concentration during the 12-month observation period.” 

“If levels of air pollution are causing this increase in sedentary time, interventions to reduce ambient air pollution concentration such as low emissions zones could have a really positive impact on individual’s levels of sedentary behaviour, and a significant effect on public health,” Dr Goldney concluded.

Read the full paper 

Long-term ambient air pollution exposure and prospective change in sedentary behaviour and physical activity in individuals at risk of type 2 diabetes in the UK | Journal of Public Health | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

The NIHR Leicester BRC is part of the NIHR and hosted by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust in partnership with the University of Leicester, Loughborough University and the University Hospitals of Northamptonshire NHS Group. The Leicester Real World Evidence Unit is part of the Leicester Diabetes Centre.

Notes for editors

The NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre

The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) is part of the NIHR and hosted by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust in partnership with the University of Leicester, Loughborough University and the University Hospitals of Northamptonshire NHS Group.

The NIHR Leicester BRC undertakes translational clinical research in priority areas of high disease burden and clinical need. These are:
  • Respiratory and infection
  • Personalised cancer prevention and treatment
  • Lifestyle (including diabetes)
  • Environment and health
  • Data innovation for multiple long term health conditions and ethnic health
  • Cardiovasculardisease

The BRC harnesses the power of experimental science to explore and develop ways to help prevent and treat chronic disease. It brings together 120 highly skilled researchers, 45 academic ‘rising stars’, more than 90 support staff and students and over 450 public contributors. By having scientists working closely with clinicians and the public, the BRC can deliver research that is relevant to both patients and the professionals who treat them. www.leicesterbrc.nihr.ac.uk

The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by: 

  • Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services.
  • Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research.
  • Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges
  • Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system
  • Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.

NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.

Leicester’s Research Registry was launched in May 2021 and will share opportunities to get involved in health research taking place in Leicester’s Hospitals, or being run with their research partners, such as the University of Leicester and Loughborough University, in their National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre, Clinical Research Facility and Patient Recruitment Centre: Leicester.

To sign up to the registry, potential volunteers need to be over 18 years of age, live in the UK, and have a valid email address. You also have the option to select if there are particular areas of health research you are interested in. You will then receive regular updates on all the exciting opportunities to participate in the hospitals’ research.

To sign up, visit www.leicestershospitals.nhs.uk/researchregistry. You can also visit the dedicated Facebook page

For media enquiries and interview requests, please contact:  

Joanna Jones, Science Communications Manager, NIHR Leicester BRC  on 07966 678057 or email Joanna.x.jones@uhl-tr.nhs.uk