Your Commute Could Be Sabotaging Your Health

Even if you eat well and exercise.

Are you a subway rider? A car commuter? One of the lucky few who can walk to work? It may matter quite a bit: Your method of commuting could be taking a toll on your waistline.

People who drove to work each day had higher body fat percentages and BMIs than people who commuted by other methods like public transportation, walking or biking, even after controlling for diet, according to a study published this month in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.

The study used data from 157,000 middle-aged British adults collected between 2006 and 2010, and concluded that men who biked to work were about two BMI points lower and 11 pounds lighter than men who drove to work. Female bikers were 1.65 points lower and almost 10 pounds lighter than female drivers.

Given that more than a third of Americans suffer from obesity and only 10 percent of American adults have a normal body fat percentage, any intervention that can address high BMI and body fat is an important one to explore. Currently in the United States, almost 86 percent of workers commute by driving or carpooling in a private vehicle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The power of active commuting

Active commuting is using any mode, or mix of modes, that involves physical activity, explained Ellen Flint, a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study. And while taking public transportation might not seem terribly active, participants who took public transit still had lower BMIs and body-fat percentages than participants who solely drove to work.

Even a small amount of incidental physical activity, such as walking to the train station, standing in a crowded subway car or walking up an escalator, is better than the sedentary act of driving. "These all add up to significantly more exertion than driving door-to-door," Flint said.

Active commuting is a win-win: it's good for public health and the environment

Of course, some people live too far from their place of employment to walk or bike to work, and might not reside in an area where public transportation is a viable option.

In Flint's opinion, this means major changes need to happen on a policy level, including investment in public transportation infrastructure and promotion of public transit as part of anti-obesity public health strategy.

"This should go hand-in-hand with wider efforts to cut carbon emissions, air pollution and traffic congestion by facilitating and promoting the use of mass transit in preference to private motorized transit," Flint said. "Designing opportunities for individuals to cycle or walk to transit hubs should become a core part public health policy."

While major U.S. cities like New York and Chicago have pushed to increase bike lanes and instituted bike share programs in recent years, as a nation, we have a long way to go in the public transit sphere. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country's transit system a 'D' rating, citing lack of access to transit and inadequate service levels for millions of Americans, coupled with aging and obsolete fleets, reduced funding, service cuts and fare increases as key areas of failure.

If you're not part of the lucky 14 percent of Americans who have active commutes, you don't have to resign yourself to a sedentary lifestyle. Small changes such as parking further away from the office, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, making sure to get up from your desk every so often, and incorporating a few simple workplace exercises into your routine are great ways to make physical activity a staple of your daily life.

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