Objectives and methods: We conducted a non-systematic mapping review of empirical and modelling evidence of the possible links between exposure to air pollution and physical activity published until Autumn 2019. We reviewed empirical evidence for the (i) impact of exposure to air pollution on physical activity behaviour, (ii)exposure to air pollution while engaged in physical activity and (iii) the short-term and (iv) long-term health effects of air pollution exposure on people engaged in physical activity. In addition, we reviewed (v) public health modelling studies that have quantified the combined effect of air pollution and physical activity. These broad research areas were identified through expert discussions, including two public events performed in health-related conferences. Results and discussion: The current literature suggests that air pollution may decrease physical activity levels during high air pollution episodes or may prevent people from engaging in physical activity overall in highly polluted environments. Several studies have estimated fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure in active transport environment in Europe and North-America, but the concentration in other regions, places for physical activity and for other air pollutants are poorly understood. Observational epidemiological studies provide some evidence for a possible interaction between air pollution and physical activity for acute health outcomes, while results for long-term effects are mixed with several studies suggesting small diminishing health gains from physical activity due to exposure to air pollution for long-term outcomes. Public health modelling studies have estimated that in most situations benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks of air pollution, at least in the active transport environment. However, overall evidence on all examined links is weak for low- and middle income countries, for sensitive subpopulations (children, elderly, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions), and for indoor air pollution.
Conclusions: Physical activity and air pollution are linked through multiple mechanisms, and these relations could have important implications for public health, especially in locations with high air pollution concentrations. Overall, this review calls for international collaboration between air pollution and physical activity research fields to strengthen the evidence base on the links between both and on how policy options could potentially reduce risks and maximise health benefits.