Pollution Can Make You Fat, Among Other Terrible Things

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Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock
Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock

Unless you’re living in a city like Delhi or Beijing, you’re more likely to be thinking about buying new kicks than protecting yourself from invisible pollutants in the air. But just because you can't see something doesn't mean it's gone away: more than 3 million deaths each year can be attributed to outdoor air pollution, higher than those who die from malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.

Sure, you can throw your hands up in the smoggy air and say, "There's nothing I can do about it!" There are, however, measures you can take to limit the damage, and knowing the nasty effects pollution can have is a good place to start.

factory pipe, smog, air pollution
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OK, so pollution is bad for my lungs, right?  

Yeah, pretty bad. The effects of pollution can linger in your lungs for as long as a decade, or approximately 12 new smartphone generations. That's a long time! City-dwellers living in England and Wales between 1971–2001, had a 14% higher risk of dying in 2002–2009 compared to people living in the countryside.

It makes sense that pollution lead to issues like bronchitis, emphysema, and pneumonia, but the real shocker is that some of the participants died from heart disease, which they traced back and connected to the pollution in the air.

While you may enjoy the 24-hour lifestyle and craft cocktails of urban dwelling, everything has its price. Maybe this will be the final piece of the puzzle that prompts you to move away from the city for a better life in the countryside.

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Pollution might also be making you fat

Bet you never considered the fact that pollution may also be to blame for those extra pounds you’ve been carrying around, too. You can find pollutants in the air you breathe, but they also have a knack for making their way into food. One study found that obese participants -- especially those with a deadly form of abdominal fat known as visceral fat -- had much higher levels of toxic pollutants.

Visceral fat is a powerful villain; it wraps around your vital organs and increases your risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which happen to be two of the leading causes of death in America.

As if that weren’t enough, these high rates of pollutants are also connected to high blood sugar levels. That might not seem like a big deal, but when paired with an unhealthy diet and a lack of regular exercise, you could be looking at heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, or diabetes before you even have a chance to retire to a pollution-free island.

It's not just obese people who should worry about pollution; people exposed to higher rates of second-hand smoke or air pollution have BMIs that are 2.15 times higher than those who aren't exposed to them.

To say that pollution is the sole cause of your weight gain might be a bit of a stretch, but it may be a factor in that extra spare tire you’ve been lugging around since college.

water pollution, river pollution, industrial pollution

But pollution is everywhere. What can I do?

You don't have to move to a yurt or adopt a plains-wandering nomadic lifestyle. But you should pay better attention to the unhealthy air that’s wafting into your lungs as we speak.

Here are three easy ways to get started:

Check your air quality like you check the weather:State of the Air, a website run by the American Lung Association, works just like finding your local weather forecast for the day. If the air quality is poor, opt for an indoor workout and skip the outdoor stroll during the danger hours -- when it’s the hottest and the sun has reached its peak.

Don't have enough room for a home workout in that studio apartment? Choose the early morning or late evening hours to get an outdoor workout in. Pollution (and transportation congestion) are at their lowest during this time.

Take the scenic route when running or biking: Get your head out of the smog and stop running or biking on routes that are surrounded by traffic. Find a scenic route so you can breathe more freely as you get your heart rate up.

Avoid using outside air in your car: You know that little button on your car’s air system that looks like you can rewind your car? That button can’t facilitate time travel, but it can help you avoid pulling in pollution from outside via your car’s air vents. Press the button and you’ll be recycling the (already filtered) air inside your cabin instead.

Pollution may not be the sexiest subject out there, but you owe it to your body to keep it on your health radar. You don't need to hide indoors or live like Bubble Boy. Just try to limit your exposure to harmful pollutants as much as you can. Your lungs, heart, and currently hidden abs will thank you later.

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Devan Ciccarelli is a writer and marketing specialist currently hiding behind the haze of air pollution. You’ll have to find her on Twitter: @DevanCiccarelli.