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Overweight? Blame Your Car

The endless and usually irritating “which is better?” debate between city dwellers and suburbanites came to a grinding halt in 2003 when a study was published showing suburbanites were on average several pounds heavier than their urban counterparts. Suddenly, no matter what compelling arguments suburbanites came up with–better schools, lower crime rates, cleaner air—they were demolished by a withering, “Not worth getting fat” or “It’s okay for your kids, but love handles are quite a price for good schools.”

The difference in poundage, geographically speaking, was pretty much attributed to the suburban inactivity that comes from a near-total dependence on cars. Even suburbanites will admit that you need a car for just about every activity imaginable…except getting to your car. And here it’s worth noting I’ve seen shuttle services available at larger shopping malls, sometimes used by older adults and the disabled, but just as often by the morbidly obese.

But now some experts are saying it’s not suburban living that’s responsible for our rising obesity rates—let’s face it, urban dwellers can be pretty chunky themselves–but rather the overall increase in automobile use during the past half century.

Professor Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, of the University of Illinois recently published his findings on the relationship between driving and obesity in the journal Transport Policy. He views this relationship in terms of energy imbalances. Since we basically sit and do absolutely nothing except breathe when we’re driving, Dr Jacobson sees the annual number of miles driven as a new way to look at time spent being completely sedentary. This sedentary time, virtually equivalent to being asleep, can be added to our other big no-calorie-burner, watching TV (or sitting and staring at your phone, computer, or hand-held game).

The energy we once burned walking to the grocery, chopping wood, tilling fields, grinding corn, or churning butter, for example, is now being burned as energy by the gas in our cars. City dwellers may protest they walk to various shops and stores, but one look at Chicago traffic on a Saturday says otherwise. I rarely see anyone ever actually walking to our local Whole Foods on North Avenue and the parking lot is always jammed to capacity.

Not only have we been rendered inactive by our cars, but every decade we’re eating more and more food every day. We’re piling our plates with fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates, and then there we sit in front of our dashboards. For those who must drive, you sort of wonder if maybe a stick shift would be preferable to an automatic transmission, just to burn a calorie or two.

The obesity curve
Our obesity rates began escalating 60 years ago, in the post-World War 2 years when buying a car became a reality for virtually every middle-class family. Dr Jacobson attributes this weight-gain to the penetration of automobile culture into our lives. And woe if you’re someone who eats in your car, for those completely unburned calories go right from your mouth to your pot belly (the sandwich is well-named).

To verify these insights, statisticians are now tracking obesity rates and car use data in countries like India and China, until recently virtually obesity-free with everyone walking or bicycling everywhere. With the rising middle class in both countries and increased car ownership, no one is surprised that obesity rates are on the rise there too.

Since Dr Jacobson is a computer whiz and data analyst rather than a physician, he’s used his data to determine how many miles per day we need to not drive in order to return our weight to normal levels. The answer is eliminating 12 miles from your daily driving, which even he acknowledges is virtually impossible. After all, during these same 60 years of automobile use, we literally redesigned most of America to accommodate our cars. Let’s face it, if you live in Evanston and work in Chicago’s Loop, you’re not going to walk back and forth to work every day (although young Abe Lincoln walked twice that distance every daily for school). You’re not going to start biking home along the shoulder of the Kennedy or Dan Ryan expressways, though expressways in Beijing are built with concrete-wall protected bike lanes.

In my own very health-oriented practice, I have several young couples who instinctively understood the health costs of a car-centered life and made a few well-considered alternative choices. For example, instead of racing to the ‘burbs at the first positive pregnancy test (“better schools,” “a back yard”), they analyzed Chicago Board of Education test scores and rented apartments or purchased modest homes within walking distance of a good school, a nice park, an L stop, and a farmer’s market. They bicycle everywhere, and when they’re compelled to drive they rent a Zipcar. I’m pretty sure neither they nor their offspring will ever have a weight problem.

Now think about your life, your day, and your car. Where might you start to use your car less, and your body more?

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD


Leave a Comment

  1. Susan Nuccio says:

    This is an excellent article, and I agree with virtually everything in it, with the exception of why city dwellers sometimes drive vs. walk or bike. I have lived in the city for 32 years now as an adult, and own both a bike and a car. I take public transportation to work, and whenever possible, walk or bike to run my errands. However, there are times when I need to drive to Whole Foods (using that as the example as you mentioned their full parking lot on Saturdays) because what I’m buying is simply to heavy or bulky to transport home any other way (think multiple 10 pound bags of kitty litter). I drive my car only when necessary, but there are times when it’s literally the only way to manage my life.

  2. Rob says:

    What about High Fructose Corn Syrup? What about the fact that we used to eat more “natural” foods. Eating healthy is just as important as being active. Eating properly has become a luxury.

    Most people make their meal decisions based on price, not nutritional consequences. Most food processors / manufacturers are great at advertising how delicious their goods are. There is not a counter option in place that is as strong as the mighty advertising dollar to help in educating the public to eating choices.

  3. Julie Soderna says:

    All due respect to the points you make, but as someone who recently moved from the City to the suburbs, I must disagree wtih the contentions herein – at least with regard to our situation. To have the circumstances to live in the City as you describe takes a whole lot of cash. We lived in a 2 bedroom condo in Albany Park on a busy street, which we were trying to sell for 4 years. We couldn’t let our kids out of our site because of traffic and had to drive to the park, because there wasn’t one close enough to walk to – at least not that we had the time to, considering we’re a dual working household with little free time. And after applying to about 15 CPS schools for our soon-to-be first grader, we came up completely empty – didn’t get into a single one. Even the private schools nearby had no spots available, so we would have been forced to accept the substandard neighborhood school that is 97% low income and low test scores to boot. And it’s not as if we didn’t have to drive to the grocery or Target (how would you get those groceries home, anyway? …unless you didn’t work and had access to a local farmers market every day, which is basically fantasy).

    Now contrast that to our life in the ‘burbs, where my kids watch substantially less TV, are active at least 2 more hours per day and we all have a much healthier and more active lifestyle, simply due to having a yard, a selection of great parks within walking distance, and just room to explore.

    I’ve alwatys lead a very healthy acitve lifestyle, but in my honest opinion, the City living we experienced did not offer the opportunity to experience the urban oasis you described. Maybe if I could stay home with the kids, live in a single family home with a yard in Lincoln Park where there are lots of parks and a couple good schools, then we’d have a different conversation…but that takes more cash than we’ll ever have…

    I usually think you are dead on with your newsletters, but just had to disagree with some of the premise of this one (though it’s hard to disagree that a car-driven culture has contributed to obesity)

    Keep the newletters coming..very thought provoking and great to be having this dialogue!.

  4. I love this article! I wish all my patients would read it!

  5. V. E. F. says:

    I noticed this in my life. I have always been overweight but when I bought a car, the pounds really started to add up, quickly. I was no longer walking 2 miles a day to get to work, which you have to do if you live in the suburbs. Now, I am stuck with the weight (which I am in the process of losing) and walking 2 miles is a challenge because I tire easily and my knees hurt. I remember that I was at my lowest weight when I was living in Syracuse, walking up and down hills all day. My only disagreement with this article is that public transportation in the city is very accessible. I don’t have a car but I can choose to walk 4 blocks to the store or catch a bus or a train to get there in most cases. I think it all depends on the person. You can live in the suburbs and still walk to a farmer’s market or bike to a grocery store. Likewise, you can live in the city and spend your time being sedentary on a bus or a train.

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