An Aerobic Workout for Sophie, But Will It Leave Her Gasping for Air?
This is the latest instalment of ‘Sophie’s quest’ a story about places where, surprisingly, air quality may not be as good as expected and brings us on journey in pursuit of healthy air while balancing the science with everyday life
By Lifestyle Medical Author Dr. Anna O’ Donovan
Sophie closes the door on her sleeping house, slipping out without a sound into the crisp morning, delighted that she won the inner struggle involved in extracting herself from the cocoon of her bed. She arrives at the gym full of good intentions and with more than a hint of smugness. Its 7am and feels ahead of the posse, ready to take on the world. Armed with a ton of new information, this morning however, she is approaching the gym from a different perspective. A couple of hours research on the internet has exposed some interesting and worrying discoveries. Her first stop is the changing room and she looks around her with new eyes.
At the door, a pile of used damp towels spills out of the bin. The air is moist from the showers and sauna and she notes that, because these changing rooms are in the basement, there are no windows to allow fresh air in. All of this, Sophie has learned, is contributing to an atmosphere ripe for bacterial and fungal growth. She’s relieved to see no signs of mold or damp on the walls or floor but her gym is newly opened and is freshly painted, so she makes a mental note to keep a watch on it. HEPA filters and dehumidification systems would help to vent the moisture from the building but Sophie can see no evidence of either in this room. She loves that members are provided with towels and relishes the simple lazy act of dropping her used one in a laundry bin for someone else to wash, but they need to be washed on a timely basis, not stored in a damp heap only to add to the moisture.
Though usually Sophie would appreciate the smell of disinfectant and cleaning products in the air, today the musky synthetic smell of chemicals catches in her throat. She is aware the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by these products can be seriously detrimental to her lungs. VOCs are gases emitted from certain solids and liquids. This gym contains hundreds of sources including the cleaning and disinfectant products, the building materials, gym equipment, air fresheners, furnishings and the carpeting and as these are all new here, the emissions are higher. Health effects of excessive VOCs include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea, damage to the liver and kidneys and to the central nervous system. They are also implicated in causing cancer. Most people are not harmed by short term exposure to low levels, but some, such as her own son, are more vulnerable than others because of pre-existing asthma, as are the very young and the very old.
For the first time, Sophie examines the hand disinfectant distributed generously around the fitness centre. She is pleased to see that is labelled ‘chemical free’ and assumes this means it is not contributing to VOC levels. The diverse and complex terms she encountered when researching products was confusing to say the least.
She wonders what her gym’s policies are with regard to cleaning products. One of the least costly ways to alleviate poor indoor air quality is to ensure that ‘greener’ cleaning supplies are bought from companies that certify their products to meet strict chemical emission standards. If these greener products are then used to sanitize hands and to frequently wipe down equipment, then the spread of bacteria and viruses can be limited. Clear and simple labelling would also provide reassurance for her. (If labelling is something that confuses you too, have a look at this article Cleaning Agents: The Divide – Human Friendly vs Environmentally Friendly).
The 25 spin class attendees have gathered in a room upstairs where Sophie is pleased to see that several windows have been propped wide open. It feels good to be among the ambitious and the go getters, all with the shared goal of physical and mental wellbeing. The room is charged with energy and throughout the class a great trainer provides motivation and advice leaving no room for apathy or boredom. These classes are a perfect way for Sophie to squeeze in some essential exercise and when winter brings its dark mornings and evenings, it feels a lot safer than being out on the streets, never mind a welcome sanctuary from the wind and the rain.
This morning there will be 24 others all effortfully exhaling carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air in a small space and each will have an increased breathing rate as they exercise, thus contributing more CO2 than normal to the surrounding air. Carbon dioxide is a good indicator of air quality of a room. It builds up much more rapidly and to a much higher concentration when the activity of the occupants of the room is more intense. For instance, the CO2 concentration an aerobic workout room would be nearly double that in a yoga room even if the yoga room had more people in it. In atypically overcrowded gym, CO2 levels can rise to 5 times the outside levels. Fortunately, CO2 is not a toxic gas, but it does affect human performance and decision making. Decision making, particularly in the areas of taking initiative, can be affected even when the CO2 levels are two and a half that of the level outside. Low levels can cause headaches, drowsiness, poor concentration, tinnitus and vertigo. Not an ideal way to feel after a workout and certainly not the goals that these early birds are striving for.
During exercise, Sophie is likely to breathe more through her mouth, thereby bypassing the natural filtration system built into her nose. Her breaths are deeper, pulling any small particles deeper into her lungs. And, like many gyms, there are a lot of small particles. Dirt from outdoor shoes mixes with dust thrown up from the frenzied activity, mixes with VOCs from the bikes and other equipment.
One particular study Sophie came across was fascinating. It studied the air quality in several gyms in Portugal. The study showed that levels of VOCs, CO2 and particulate matter (PM) exceeded all safety levels. The particulate matter was the biggest culprit – this is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs. Considering that particulate matter is the deadliest form of air pollution, this is especially worrying. It can penetrate deep into our lungs causing permanent DNA mutations, heart attacks, respiratory illness and premature death. There is no safe level of PM and as its level rises, so does the lung cancer rate. PM (2.5) is composed of the smallest or finest particles and is even more dangerous as it can penetrate deeper into our lungs and some may even enter our bloodstream.
In the gyms studied, elevated levels of PM were recorded at peak times and at cleaning times. Obviously at peak times there are more people, more activity, more dust. An increase at cleaning times however was more surprising to Sophie. The paradox that cleaning a gym could adversely affect its air quality became clear when she learned that sweeping and dusting resuspend the small particles into the air, thus increasing the particulate matter. Ideally gyms should be mopped to dampen down the particles or vacuumed with cleaners equipped with HEPA filters which force air through a fine mesh of fiberglass where the particulates, dust and mold spores are trapped.
Frighteningly, the level of particulate matter in the bodybuilding room in one of the gyms studied in Portugal was nearly 4 times the recommended limit. This may be because chalk used for grip by bodybuilders disseminates into dust in the air. To make the problem worse, it is difficult to clean off equipment, and needs more potentially toxic cleaning products to remove it. Sophie is thinking of the climbing wall in her gym and the chalk her kids use. Watching them gain strength, agility and confidence on the wall, it never occurred to her that the chalk may be harmful, especially to her asthmatic son Sean. She has seen how climbers carry chalk bags on their harnesses, dipping their hands in it with alarming frequency and blowing the excess chalk into the air. The atmosphere must be full of it. Her research has taught her that liquid chalk is a safer alternative and she has already decided to approach management to encourage them to change their rules regarding chalk. To further reduce PM, she might also suggest an indoor shoe only policy.
Back in the spin room, bikes are haphazardly crammed in, leaving practically no available floor space and it appears to Sophie that there are no regulations limiting the number of clients in any given room. This matters, as even if there was a ventilation system it would sorely struggle to deal with the excessive levels of CO2 and PM now present. Surely HVAC systems with HEPA filters and dehumidifiers designed for specific numbers of people should be a necessity for fitness centres. This however is not the case. It is down to each individual gym manager to ensure the air quality is optimal. But is very much in their interest. After all, no gym goer wants to be assaulted by a stuffy old-socks smell. A properly designed gym ventilation system combined with meticulous cleaning using low emission products would vastly improve any workout, presumably leading to more members and a better business. The management at her gym may be able to tell Sophie if the air quality has ever been tested, so she is intending to ask. To her relief the class ends before her legs give up and she makes her way home on her wobbly knees, exhausted but exhilarated.
Sophie may not be willing or able to change the world, but she is an activist in the provincial sense of the word and she is fully aware that she has the power to change the little things around her. Her family, her neighbourhood, her community – these are her responsibility. An email, a letter, a movement. It can be that simple.
The next article in the series will explore the air quality in swimming pools as Sophie brings her kids to their weekly lesson….
About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author
Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award winning author.
gym, VOC, MOLD, air quality, lungs, indoor air quality, pollution, asthma, allergy, allergy insights, particulates, PM2.5, HEPA
Click here to read more on “Exposure to indoor air pollutants during physical activity in fitness centers”
Click here to read more on “Health and Environmental Effects of Particulate Matter (PM)”