The largest-ever study into the health benefits of active transportation has confirmed what most of us could easily have guessed: those who walk and bike to work have lower levels of body fat than those who drive or take public transit. While the study results are unsurprising to say the least, it is interesting to note that the lower levels of fat linked to active commuting were independent of other social factors such as socioeconomic status, alcohol consumption, smoking, or whether the person lives in a rural or urban area.
The study, carried out at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, used observational data from over 150,000 individuals taken from the UK Biobank data set, between the ages of 40-69 years. Body fat was assessed in two ways: body mass index (BMI), which is a ratio of weight to height, and body fat percentage. Across the board, people who always or occasionally commuted actively were observed as having lower levels of body fat than those who never did.
The largest observed difference was between people who biked and people who drove. Men who biked to work were on average 11lbs (5kg) lighter and two BMI points lower than those who drove. Women who biked to work were 9.7lbs (4.4kg) lighter and 1.65 BMI points less than women who drove.
Interestingly, those individuals who largely took public transit also showed lower levels of body fat than their always-driving counterparts, suggesting that integrating even the minor activity of walking between buses and trains into your daily commute can have a positive impact on your health.
While a few pounds here or there may not seem like a huge deal, the rising tide of obesity in the Western world would suggest otherwise.
In Canada, 37% of adults were measured as being overweight in 2008, and a further 25% were measured as obese. In the US, things are even more dire. Almost 3 in 4 American men (74%) are considered overweight, while across genders 35.7% of adults are considered obese and a further 6.3 percent are extremely obese.
While obesity is a complex problem, and tackling it will require much more than simply suggesting a bit of exercise, this study does shed light on how even the smallest bit of exercise can make a difference in our health, especially as we age.
Most people tend to reduce their levels of physical activity as they grow older. The combined responsibilities of work, family obligations, and general adulthood leave many people constantly pressed for time, and exercise, unfortunately, is often the first activity to get cut. Meanwhile, the metabolism slows by around 1% each year, starting around age 30. The result is the dreaded “middle age weight gain,” which, even when not at levels considered to be obesity, can still increase risk of a number of health problems including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and diabetes.
This study emphasizes the small, daily changes we can make that have long-term positive impacts on our health. Not everybody has time to hit the gym for an hour a day, but everybody has to get around town. For communities which still lack safe biking and walking infrastructure, it serves as further impetus to push for change. Our health depends on it.
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