Negative Ions – James Wright (1991)


The following article comes from Muscle and Fitness editor James E. Wright on the dangers on negative ions for bodybuilders, which can be lumped in with the dangers of pollution in a sense. While you’re unlikely to see such an article nowadays in the muscle magazines, Wright’s writing demonstrated the fact that many bodybuilders were concerned not just with lifting weights, but also the environment in which they existed.

“Three more reps!” screamed my training partner.  I was determined and thinking positive. But after eight sets my quads are about to combust spontaneously! Quivering uncontrollably!  Despite my attitude I wasn’t sure I could get those last squats without big-time help form my partner.  To put it mildly, I was sucking wind.  I didn’t need motivation; I didn’t need concentration.  What I needed was faster recuperation.

And what o you see on the sidelines during NFL games and even in some gyms on hot summer nights?  Behemoths sucking hard from a nose-mouth mask connected to a tank of oxygen.  Why?  Medical and scientific researchers insist that it doesn’t aid strength or anaerobic performance.  They do it because the believe it helps them recover quicker between periods of extreme exertion.

What this article is about are the subtle but potentially significant effects on physiology, mood and performance of breathing artificially charged molecules of oxygen – not what the NFL players were doing, but something as natural as the air after a spring rain but which has gone all but unnoticed by athletes outside Eastern Europe.

The Soviets are the acknowledged masters of recuperation.  They also happen to have done far more research on air ions and other aspects of air quality than anyone.  Is there a connection?  There is evidence that you’ll see for the very first time in this article that leads one to believe that this concept could be one hot, new (to us) ticket to improved mood, concentration and recuperation.  Get me back to that squat rack!

Air is made up of 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, right?  And out survival as well as performance depends on the oxygen right?  Right!  But, that’s obviously far from the whole story.  We all know by now that the air we breathe contains lost of other stuff.  Some of it is known to seriously and adversely affect our heath; the government regulates a lot of this stuff, like factory and auto exhaust emissions.

What you may not have known is that some of it (besides pure oxygen) is thought to affect health, mental state, physical performance and recuperation in a positive way.  What I’m referring to are air ions — which are simply electrically charged air particles — the most important and potentially and adaptogenic of which is negatively ionized oxygen.  Positively charged particles, particularly carbon dioxide, are important too, but because they can cause a variety of noxious effects that can severely impair concentration and recovery.


As early as 1933, scientists were reporting that the upper respiratory tract became irrigated after positive air ions were inhaled,.  And even before then it was noted that during the blowing of certain desert winds (such as the Santa Ana and Chinook in the United States, the Sharav in the Near East) that contain high concentrations of positive ions, a large portion of the population experienced fatigue, restlessness, irritability and server headaches.  It was later determined that both automobile and industrial accident rates and postsurgical complications increase when those winds blow.

In the 1950s, other investigators recorded dryness, burning, and itching of the nose and eyes, nasal obstruction, dry lips, dry scratchy throat, difficulty in  swallowing and breathing, headache and dizziness in individuals exposed to positively ionized air.  All the high-tech electronic equipment, power lines, and even video games, electric blankets,  and air conditioners generate significant quantities of positive ions.  And the typical buildings constructed today whether homes or offices, are built to be as super tight and energy efficient as possible which further serves to increase the concentration of these ions.

Positive ions seem to be everywhere, and they seem to be on the increase as industry and electronic technology advance.  Although some people are more sensitive than others to ion effects, it doesn’t take a genus to figure out that the quality and effectiveness of our training and recuperation are probably hurt, at least to some degree, by our constant exposure to our positively ionized modern environment.

After observing the negative effects of positive ions, researchers asked the obvious question: Would negative ions reverse these effects or have other benefits related to health or performance? Early work with animals tensed to confirm these suppositions.  In studies using rats, older animals showed a distinct preference for a chamber in which negatively ionized air was available.  Other reports indicated that negatively ionized air significantly improve the error and time scores of older rats in a water maze.  Furthermore, older rates exposed to negative ions were found to be  more physically active than animals of similar age that were not exposed.

A number of studies in humans have attempted to evaluate the effects of negative ions on tasks that require constant attention, concentration and fast reaction time.  The results of these have been mixed, although some have shown significant differences favoring the negative ion conditions.

In other studies, burn patients in the late ’50s exposed to negative air ions for just 30 minutes a day showed an almost immediate relief from pain as well in improved recovery.  Israeli researchers later found that negative ions have specific and rather remarkable effects on the brain as shown on the electroencephalogram (EEG).  These changes were reflective of improved capacities for relaxation as well as concentration and mental function.  The synchronization of both hemispheres (halves) of the brain that they observed reflects a pinnacle state that is sought by  the most experienced and competent Zen masters and meditators.  If this state can reliably be achieved by bodybuilders and other athletes, the implications for enhancing recuperation are mind boggling.


Very little has been published relating to the effects of ion exposure on training, recovery or athletic performance.  The only interest, outside the Soviet Union, has been in potential military and commercial applications of ionization.

Consider this.  The track and field season lasts longer (from early spring through late summer) and is more grueling (more traveling, more competitions) than most other sports.  Yet in meet after meet, country after country, from the beginning to the end of the season, Soviet athletes perform better and better.  Meanwhile, athletes from most other countries peak at one point in time, before and after which their performances are of lower quality and consistency.

Not much is actually heard about the use of ionized air by Soviet athletes.  However, they certainly seem to have the art of recuperation down to a science.  The focus of their sports research today seems to be finding and applying natural substances and ways to improve recuperation and performance.  And they’ve done more work on ions and other potentially ergogenic/adpatogenic substances in air than the rest of the world combined.  What does that suggest to you?

It seems likely that their athletes would have been exposed to negative ions, perhaps even without their knowledge, in an effort to facilitate better concentration, harder training, faster recovery and better performance.  Given the amount of general research the Soviets have done on ions, it’s a good bet that their athletes have at least experimented with them.  And, contrary to popular opinion, they do believe that it makes much more sense to use natural, health-producing substances than dangerous and illegal synthetic drugs.


The idea at one time really did seem pretty far-fetched to the conservative scientific community.  The brief episode of commercial exploitation in the late 1950s with many unfounded claims for broad health benefits from “air ionizers” also did its share of damage.

The resulting loss of credibility was costly.  Without a substantiated mode of action or clear-cut effects in humans, the “germicidal” action was the only health claim available to the manufacturers of the early units here in the U.S. Consumer interest dwindled, most devices were removed from the market, and research lagged.

Health claims are still banned, but the devices are available from numerous manufacturers in the U.S. and even more abroad, where they’re used in homes, factories, medical facilities and even cars.  They are now marketed here as air “cleansing” units because of the well documented actions of negative ions to attach to a variety of pollutants in air.  The move in a zigzag sort of pattern and convey their negative charge to bacteria, dust, smoke particles and water droplets.  The electrical charge conglomerates these particles, which then drop to the ground (or are sucked into an air filter/cleaner).


Today, despite conflicts in the results of the various studies and many unanswered questions, a growing body of scientific literature suggests that, although people vary in their sensitivity to ions, the natural or artificial ionization of a small proportion of ambient air can significantly influence human physiology mood and performance.

Although there are no real guarantees in this life, it seems to me that the existing evidence warrants a trial of this concept. With all the effort devoted to training, it makes sense to use all means at your disposal to make that training more effective, provided of course the the means are legal, not harmful to health, and not devastating to your wallet.

There is no chance of an “overdose” as the negative ions decay within seconds. No ill effects have ever been reported as a result of breathing negatively ionized air for many hours a day for many months (as long as excessive quantities of ozone are not produced). And the devices are relatively inexpensive (from $35 up for a room-size unit).


“Air ionization’ simply refers to the loss or gain of electrons from molecules of atmospheric gases.  In most cases the displaced electron is quickly captured by another molecule to which it imparts an opposite charge.  As ions bump into other molecules about a billion times a second, they often become attached., forming new ionic particles.

Air ionization occurs naturally as a result of such forces as radioactivity from the earth’s crust, cosmic rays, the shearing of water droplets in waterfalls and ocean waves, and the rapid flow of hot, dry air over a land, mass.

The best known examples of natural positive ionization are during the blowing of certain infamous winds which occur regularly in many regions. Southern France has “le Mistral/” Bavaria, the “Foehn;” Italy, the Sirocco; and Israel, the Sharav. In the US the Chinook blows down the east slope of the Rocky Mountains during early spring, and the Santa Ana blow our way here in California.

Studies indicate that natural “fresh country air” in good weather contains about 1,000-2,500 positive and negative ions per cubic centimeter of air, with negative ions predominating slightly at a ratio of approximately 5:4.

Ions are also generated by all electronic equipment, including radio and television transmissions, video display terminals for word and data processing or games, electric power lines, etc. by air “conditioning” (heating and cooling) and by auto and industrial emissions and processes.

Man-made textiles and fabrics tend to pick up and hold a static charge and can significantly influence the air ionization mix that reaches an individual.  Homes and other buildings constructed to be airtight and energy efficient re-circulate most of the inside air, which also increases the concentration of positive ions.  Although cheaper, recirculation also tends to maintain or increase the population of bacteria, viruses and other pollutants.

The adverse effects of positive ions generated by all these systems can be offset by the use of negative ionizers.


Although these effects have not yet been documented in bodybuilders or or other Western athletes, and despite conflicts in the data and individual variability in sensitivity to ion effects, there is a present sufficient evidence to suggest that regular exposure to a negatively ionized environment could have the following consequences:

  • Improvement in overall mood

  • Enhanced ability to concentrate

  • Greater overall/basal sated of relaxation

  • Enhanced ability to relax

  • Improved healing of wounds or injuries

  • Greater psychic balance

  • Fewer bacterial and viral infections

  • Reduced cancer risk

  • Cleaner lungs

  • More hygienic, pleasant smelling environment

  • Compensation for the effects of positive ions

  • Enhanced training attitude and effectiveness.