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Beyond Lungs: Air Pollution's impact on Athletes' Performance

Many factors can affect the performance of elite athletes on the field. Nerves and anxiety gain space in the face of pressure.

By Ground report
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Beyond Lungs: Air Pollution's impact on Athletes' Performance

Many factors can affect the performance of elite athletes on the field. Nerves and anxiety gain space in the face of pressure. More if it is a final. There are also external agents: technicians, tactics, the field of play, the stands.

A team, this time of academics from two Louisiana universities, recently published a study that points to another culprit in athletes' performance: air pollution.

Anyone has a bad day. But there are previous investigations that suggest that air quality affects the behaviour of athletes. The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that even small amounts of air pollution equate to slower times for athletes.

The researchers also looked at soccer players and found that when they are exposed to worse air, they make fewer passes and not only run less but play less intensely. The peer-reviewed study was the scientists' first attempt to look at how air pollution affects professionals in North America's big sports -- baseball and soccer.

Teams and players based in cities with poorer air quality made more errors and threw more interceptions. In general, they performed at a lower level. 

"Whether you're looking at a snapshot of performance over a year, or over the course of a race, it seems that, based on our sample, that negatively affects performance," Jeremy Foreman Associate professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and co-author of the study told The Daily Beast.

Athletes and air pollution

The researchers collected two data sets to investigate air pollution and athlete performance. One, all the errors made in Major League Baseball from 1999 to 2020. And another, the interceptions were thrown and quarterback rating in the NFL (National Football League) from 2006 to 2021.

They then compared those numbers to data from the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index. An indicator that measures pollutants such as carbon monoxide. As well as microscopic amounts of matter and liquid known as particulates on a scale of 0 (little or no risk) to 500 (all those exposed are in danger).

The researchers took a few variables into account; for example, they worked under the assumption that the more a baseball team spent in salary, the fewer errors a team could be expected to make. Similarly, an NFL quarterback with more years of experience would make fewer errors than a rookie. And therefore he would have a higher quarterback rating.

What they found then was that the difference in performance due to air quality was small relative to isolated incidents. But it could lead to major problems over the course of a season. Each point increase in AQI was associated with 0.000993 additional errors per game. 

The Arizona Diamondbacks play in Phoenix, the city with the worst air quality in the MLB, would be expected to make an additional 10 errors over the course of a season.

Contaminating places affect abilities

The research found that on the football side, every one-point increase in AQI was linked to a 0.230 decrease in QB rating. A statistic that incorporates pass attempts, completions, touchdowns, interceptions, and total yards. To provide an overview of quarterback performance.

Along those lines, a quarterback who plays for the Arizona Cardinals, who also suffer from terrible air west of Phoenix in Glendale, would see a decrease in QBR of 15.4 points. And he would also have a 1.27% higher interception rate than if they played in a city where the air quality is NFL average.

The results showed that air pollution exposure not only affected the athletes in the short term but could lead to cumulative deterioration in performance over time. They found that the more time a quarterback spent playing in more polluted places over the course of his year, the more it affected his skills.

Previous studies have indicated that airborne contaminants can affect athletes who participate in cardio-intensity sports such as marathon runners. The new research revealed that even in sports where the action comes in short bursts, player performance suffers.

Mistakes in both football and baseball are often due more to errors in judgment than physical limitations. So if air pollution plays a role, it's because it not only affects bodily systems like the lungs, but can also affect cognitive function.

Cognitive impact

Francis Pope, professor of atmospheric studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, commented on the study. “The cognitive side has really started to be understood in recent years, but the mechanism hasn't been understood as much,” he told The Daily Beast. 

“Certainly, the evidence is piling up. Not only the impact of air pollution on athletes. It seems to have an effect on people's cognitive impacts, both in the short term and, through increased rates of diseases like Alzheimer's, in the long term."

The study's conclusions are largely in line with what was already known about air quality. But the analysis doesn't take into account that different pollutants affect the human body differently, according to Michael Koehle Professor of sports medicine at the University of British Columbia.

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