Air pollution could be negating the beneficial health effects of walking, claimed scientists from Imperial College London.
Exhaust fumes from cars and vans could make breathing more difficult in over-60s, and increase the stiffness of arteries while walking, they revealed.
Previous research has claimed arterial stiffness may cause high blood pressure.
New air quality limits needed to be enforced so people can tolerate the levels of air pollution, the researchers said.
“These findings are important as for many people, such as the elderly or those with chronic disease, very often the only exercise they can do is to walk,” said senior author of the research, Fan Chung.
“Our research suggests that we might advise older adults to walk in green spaces, away from built-up areas and pollution from traffic.
“For people living in the inner city it may be difficult to find areas where they can go and walk, away from pollution. There may be a cost associated as they have to travel further away from where they live or work.
“These are issues that mean we really need to reduce pollution by controlling traffic. That should allow everyone to be able to enjoy the health benefits of physical activity in any urban environment.”
The researchers analysed the cardiovascular health of 119 people, that walked for two hours through a leafy area of Hyde Park, and through the bustling roads of Oxford Street.
All volunteers were over 60, and were either healthy, had stable heart disease, or stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
After walking through Hyde Park, lung capacity and blood flow were improved, while arterial stiffness was decreased by as much as 24 per cent.
But, after walking along Oxford Street, COPD patients saw arterial stiffness increase. They were coughing and wheezing more, while they experienced shortness of breath.
The study also revealed, however, that some cardiovascular disease medication protected patients from the effects of air pollution.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) said while the medication could protect against acute pollutant effects, it wasn’t the right way to deal with the problem.
Special Advisor to the RCP on Air Quality, Professor Stephen Holgate, said: “The observation that air pollution encountered on a high street in London removes any health protection produced by exercise outdoors is yet another demonstration that pollution is eroding the health of ordinary people.
“More than this, it would seem that pollution, in large part related to traffic emissions, has an immediate adverse effect on those with chronic diseases such as COPD and cardiovascular diseases.
“This important study mandates action to radically reduce pollution at source to enable our cities and towns to be safe places to live in and move around.”