Fitness: As the climate changes, so will exercise habits Leave a comment


Excessive heat, air pollution and volatile weather patterns have been linked to a decline in physical activity.

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As much as climate change has been highlighted in the news and debated around kitchen tables, there’s been little discussion as to how fluctuations in the environment will affect physical activity and sport. Excessive heat, air pollution and volatile weather patterns have been independently linked to a decline in physical activity and sports participation, which suggests that as the climate changes, our exercise habits will, too.

With the scientific community stating that the next two decades will bring about significant changes in the Earth’s ecosystems, a group of Canadian scientists — along with colleagues from Spain and France — reviewed 74 academic articles that explored the association between physical activity and climate change.

Given the widely different climates across the globe — and in some cases across individual countries — the impact of climate change on exercise patterns will vary considerably by location. Warm-weather countries will feel the effects of any rise in temperature more acutely than northern locales like Canada, which may actually see an increase in physical activity during spring and fall.

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“Findings suggested that increases in global temperatures induced by climate change could result in an increase in physical activity in the cooler months by 2100,” stated the researchers. “However, severe physical activity reductions were observed for summer months between June and August.”

Bike sharing is a good example of an activity that may be able to start earlier in the spring and last later in the fall, given the arrival of milder temperatures, but any increase in participation is likely to be offset by a decrease during the now hotter summer months.

How does a warmer climate affect our Canadian winters? For those of us used to spending December to March on ski hills, trails and rinks, milder temperatures will cut our winters short and likely result in an increase in rainfall and earlier snow melt — all of which means we’ll likely spend less time outdoors enjoying winter sports. Several studies looking at a very Canadian experience suggested that if temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, the outdoor skating season in Montreal and Ottawa will get 24 to 75 per cent shorter by 2090.

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Variability in the consequences of climate change will also be experienced on an individual level, with children, older adults and people suffering from chronic diseases and/or obesity being more sensitive to changes in temperature and air quality. Every measurable increase in air pollution concentration can result in a significant decrease in physical activity, including less time spent walking, jogging or biking and fewer visits to parks and playgrounds — especially among those more vulnerable populations. A study based in the U.S. noted that time spent doing vigorous outdoor activity decreased by 18 per cent on days when pollution rates were notably high and alerts were circulated through the media. This trend of being less physically active was also noticed when outdoor temperatures spiked, or during periods of excessive rain.

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Weather and air pollution aren’t the only considerations when it comes to a changing environment’s effect on physical activity. Like the rest of the population, active communities have a role to play in adopting greener practices. Their embrace of active transportation is one example. Yet participation in sports at the recreational and elite level isn’t inherently green. Frequent gas-powered trips to and from the gym and sports activities like practices, games and tournaments — not to mention active vacations far from home — leave a large carbon footprint. Golfers, skiers and surfers registered some of the highest individual use of greenhouse gases based largely on their leisure-related travel.

Building on the idea that even an active lifestyle can have a negative effect on the environment, the concept of sustainable physical activity is gaining steam. It’s defined as: “Activities that are conducted with sufficient duration, intensity and frequency for promoting health, yet without excessive expenditure of energy for food, transportation, training facilities or equipment; sustainable physical activities have low environmental impact and they are culturally and economically acceptable and accessible.”

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As such, the research team suggests sports organizations at the recreational, elite and professional levels perform a thorough review of transportation modes to and from games, competitions and practices. Carpooling and the use of hybrid or battery-operated vehicles (cars and buses) should become the norm for active individuals and teams that travel extensively to pursue their sports or activities. Other green practices include recycling used equipment to benefit less fortunate communities and taking active vacations closer to home. Sports teams and leagues should develop sustainability statements and outline a series of changes that lessen their impact on the environment.

Educating athletes young and old on their role in reducing the effects of climate change is part of an overall strategy to keep the outdoors a safe, enjoyable place to exercise for generations to come.

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