A recent study, published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, shows that the way in which we travel to work has a significant impact on our body mass index. Those who cycle, walk or use public transport in midlife are likely to have a lower percentage of body fat than drivers.
The negative health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle are well known, as America’s inordinate rise in obesity shows.
On the other side of the coin, increased physical activity has been shown to strengthen bones and muscles, improve mood and lengthen life.
Currently, only 1 in 5 Americans manage the recommended amount of aerobic physical and muscle-strengthening activity.
In America, there are an estimated 128.3 million commuters. More than 87% of these journeys are made by car, other modes of transport include the bus (2.52%), subway (1.45%), walking (3.26%) and cycling (0.38%).
A recent study by Dr. Ellen Flint, lecturer in population health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK, looked at commuting and its effect on percentage of body fat and body mass index (BMI).
The team used data from UK Biobank, collected between 2006-2010. Altogether, 150,000 individuals aged 40-69 were included, making this the largest trial to investigate the health benefits of transport during commuting.
The results showed that those who engaged in active commuting – cycling or walking – had significantly lower BMI and body fat percentages. The effects were strong and remained significant even when factors such as income level, urban or rural living, education level, alcohol habits, smoking, general physical activity and overall health and disability were accounted for.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, cycling was by far the most healthy option for getting work. Cyclists were, on average, 5 kg (11 Ibs) lighter than car users and showed a difference in BMI of 1.71 kg/m2. Female cyclists were 4.4 kg (9.7 lbs) lighter than their driving equivalents (BMI difference 1.65 kg/m2).
Walkers also showed improvements compared with drivers, with a difference in BMI of 0.98 kg/m2 for men and 0.80 kg/m2 for women. These positive differences for cyclists and walkers were most pronounced in those who traveled the longest distances to reach work.
The team also found that commuters who traveled to work by bus or train had significantly lower BMIs than those who drove. It seems that a small amount additional activity still had a positive effect; the BMI difference was 0.70 kg/m2 for men who used public transport, compared with drivers.
Dr. Flints says:
“Many people live too far from their workplace for walking or cycling to be feasible, but even the incidental physical activity involved in public transport can have an important effect.”
Inactivity is one of the leading causes of ill health and premature mortality in the industrialized world. Any changes to divert this scourge of modern life should be fully investigated. Dr. Flint says:
“Encouraging public transport and active commuting, especially for those in midlife when obesity becomes an increasing problem, could be an important part of the global policy response to population-level obesity prevention.”
The study, funded by the UK Medical Research Council, is accompanied by an editorial written by Dr. Lars Bo Andersen, from Sogndal and Fjordane University College in Norway. Dr. Andersen says:
“Many people are not attracted to recreational sports or other leisure time physical activities, which are proven to benefit health, and active transport might, therefore, be an important and easy choice to increase physical activity and the proportion of people achieving recommended levels of physical activity.”
Although the findings are, to a certain extent, as expected, the improvement in health parameters for those who use public transport compared with driving are truly surprising.
In a modern world where every moment of our day is accounted for, a simple switch from driving to public transport might be a useful way to shed some weight and increase longevity.
An intervention as simple as this could potentially have ramifications for the health of entire nations. As Dr. Andersen says: “Promotion and facilitation of active commuting should be part of national and global strategies for the prevention of obesity.”
Medical News Today recently covered research showing that being lazy might shrink the brain.