You must have read somewhere that every piece of research in the past few years has categorically shown the health benefits of walking or bicycling to work. If you live too far away from your workplace to make those options feasible, this Health Tip will make your day.
With walking or cycling, your weight will come down (unless you stop midway for a croissant), as will your risks for a variety of chronic illnesses, notably both diabetes and high blood pressure. This stems from a measurable drop in your BMI, the (albeit imperfect) height-weight calculation that classifies you as normal, underweight, overweight, or obese.
A recent study carried out in the UK and published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that total weekday physical activity was 45% higher in participants who walked to work compared with those who commuted by car. To help us not drive, here in Chicago we’ve got Divvy, a terrific bike-share system that offers unlimited rides for a mere $75 annually, and enough bike safety paths to get you most places without being crushed by an SUV.
“Well,” you snort, “We don’t exactly live in Palo Alto.” This is a definite setback. Last year’s Polar Vortex was a real challenge for both cyclists and pedestrians. Chicago is Siberia in winter, Calcutta in summer, and as I fret over what next January might bring, thinking that renaming our city Chiberia is not unreasonable.
“Plus,” you add, “I live in the suburbs. You really don’t expect me to bike to work, do you?” No, I do not. In fact, if you live in any of the 300+ separately named towns and villages that constitute Chicagoland, walking or cycling to work is likely an impossibility. Trust me, I’m not going to nag you to walk to the Loop from Naperville.
Startlingly good news about mass transport and your health
Here’s the big news. If you take public transportation, regardless what kind you choose, doing so will have the same effect on your BMI (it drops!) and your body fat composition (it drops, too!), just as if you bicycled or walked to work. Read that sentence again…muy importante!
I, too, was skeptical.
But this was a carefully done study from the UK, published last week in the British Medical Journal. Measurements of drivers verus commuters were obtained by public health nurses. When you think about it, the results make sense. Here’s what researchers concluded: if you drive to work, you’re leaving your front door, walking to your car, and sitting down for the next 30, 45, or 60 minutes. Your sole workout comes from changing radio stations, which believe me isn’t impressive when it comes to calorie burning. But if you take public transportation, most people (at least in the UK) either walk or drive to a bus or train station, and when they arrive at their destination either walk or cycle to their workplace.
Just that apparently insignificant amount of activity each workday was sufficient to trigger a measurable drop in BMI, and with it a measurable drop in body fat percentage, high blood pressure, and diabetes risk. To quote directly from an accompanying BMJ editorial, “the most interesting and perhaps important finding of the study was the reduced (body fat) associated with commuting to work by public transport.”
Whittle your waistline, support our earth
Consider your own workday. A serious number of Chicagoans take public transportation to work. If you’re among them, you leave home and walk to a bus stop. Then you stand there (which burns more calories than sitting) waiting, waiting. You clamber onto a bus and often stand some more. Or, arriving at an L stop you climb a monster flight of stairs, stand on the platform, and when the train arrives you usually stand for the duration of your ride. Then you take some more stairs and walk to your place of Dickensian drudgery known as work.
This whole process, done twice daily, five days a week, burns many more calories–and provides a lot more cardio–than investigators ever imagined.
Ultimately, what this research is telling you is leave the car at home. “But…but,” I hear you sputter, “My new Lexus (Corolla, Escort, PC Volt). I’m halfway through paying for it.” So use it to drive to the mall or the grocery, parking as far away from the entrance as possible, or do something that really burns calories and wash it by hand every weekend. Why not make it a personal project to see how much you can reduce your car usage?
(My wife has a 2003 Toyota with 16,000 miles on it. Impressive non-use of a vehicle. Feeling generous, I might pop for a replacement in 2024.)
Finally, pause and ponder the effects of all this on our environment. Every single commuter, whether she uses public transportation, a bicycle, or her legs (but not a car), is doing some overwhelmingly positive karmic work. Her individual effect on reducing global impact may be small, but I am positive, utterly positive, that Gaia is grateful for her efforts.
David Edelberg, MD