This recent Reuters story about commuters and weight gain kind of falls into the “no duh” category of Obvious Research Conclusions, but upon closer inspection it’s really quite remarkable. The study of 822 Australians found that people who commute to work by car gained more weight than their counterparts who get to work by transit, biking or walking. OK, filed. But it goes on to report that the study included people who all got at least 2.5 hours of exercise per week during leisure time. That’s 30 minutes a weekday. So, if you commute regularly by car, modest regular exercise does not overcome the health impacts of that mode of transportation.
"Even if you are efficiently active during leisure time, if you use a car for commuting daily then that has an impact on weight gain," lead author Takemi Sugiyama of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne told Reuters Health.
Other research in Atlanta had similar conclusions. A 2004 study also found that the longer the work commute, the more food people bought and extended their driving time by driving to lunch or running other errands, further contributing to their likelihood of becoming obese.
The Economics of Obesity and Skinny Butts
Why should we care if auto commuters gain a few extra pounds than the “skinny-butt, skinny-tired bicyclists?” There is a huge economic impact of obesity associated with medical costs and lower productivity. A 2010 Brookings study reported that for childhood obesity alone, the annual direct costs in the US are about $14.3 billion in higher medical costs. There is also a quantifiable impact of obesity on adults in terms of lost productivity at work. For instance, in the North American division of Shell Oil Company, 3.73 additional days of work were lost per year for each obese employee relative to their normal-weight co-workers.
Another study cited in the research reported that employees considered at risk for obesity were 1.23 times more likely to be in the ‘high-absenteeism’ group than those who were not. With the cost of providing health insurance, employers may increasingly consider the obesity rate of the working age population when choosing between site locations. From the perspective of the digital arts and high tech industries, I’m willing to bet that the rate of obesity might be viewed an inverse indicator of a neighborhood’s or a city’s inherent coolness, much like having active transportation choices is a positive indicator.
It Takes a Plan
Planners have a critical role to play in designing active transportation networks and land use plans that offer more than just recreational and health opportunities. In addition to trails and Safe Routes to Schools projects, planners need to focus equally on taming the existing street network to improve connectivity and access for all users. We need to raise the awareness of elected officials about the direct and indirect benefits of a fostering a culture of walking, bicycling and using transit. As indicated in the research, active transportation needs to be integrated into every day activities. Trails or shared-use paths and other “amenities” often built by developers or by governments using abandoned rail lines have limited utility for most types of trips other than recreation. Even if they do connect people to jobs or retail, they are often limited and people must connect using streets or sidewalks.
Investing in transit and ensuring it can thrive in an active, economically supportive environment is another must. But there are short-term, lower cost actions that can occur today. Designing walkable neighborhoods means addressing the barriers of wide, fast roads and improving access to transit for those on foot or bike. It means managing parking and using wayfinding. It will also take more education for everyone. And there’s no doubt that active streets depends on the support of law enforcement so all users – car drivers, walkers and bicyclists alike – observe the laws, know how to share the road, and feel confident they can access their destination safely and conveniently.