Leaner nations bike, walk and use mass transit, study shows
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jim Richards is no kid, but he loves to ride his bike. At 51, he has become a cycling commuter, pedalling 18 kilometres from his home in the suburbs to his job in downtown Knoxville.
“It really doesn’t take that much longer” than driving, he insists.
New research illustrates the health benefits of regular biking, walking or taking public transportation to work, school or shopping. Researchers found a link between “active transportation” and less obesity in 17 industrialized countries across Europe, North America and Australia.
“Countries with the highest levels of active transportation generally had the lowest obesity rates,” authors David Bassett of the University of Tennessee and John Pucher of Rutgers University conclude.
Americans, with the highest rate of obesity, were the least likely to walk, cycle or take mass transit, according to the study in a recent issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. The study relied on each country’s own travel and health data.
Only 12 per cent use active transportation in the United States — nine per cent walk, one per cent ride a bike and two per cent take a bus or train — while a quarter to a third are obese, the study said.
By comparison, 67 per cent of commuters in Latvia, 62 per cent in Sweden and 52 per cent in the Netherlands either walk, bike or use mass transit. Latvia’s obesity rate is 14 per cent, the Netherlands’ is 11 per cent and Sweden’s is nine per cent.
A similar pattern was found in Canada (19 per cent active transportation, 23 per cent obese) and Australia (14 per cent active transportation, 21 per cent obese).
Overall, Bassett said, “Europeans walk three times as far and cycle five times as far as Americans.”
The authors say it’s more than lifestyle choices that lead Americans to use their cars more. Europe’s compact, dense layout and infrastructure are more conducive to getting around without a car.
Europeans on average walk 381 kilometres and cycle 187 kilometres per year; U.S. residents walk 140 kilometres and bike 39 kilometres. Bassett and Pucher calculated that translates into burning off five to nine pounds of fat annually for Europeans compared to only two pounds for Americans.
While the analysis doesn’t prove that transportation keeps obesity levels down “they make an excellent case,” said Susan Handy, who heads the Sustainable Transportation Center at the University of California at Davis.
“The question, then, is what do we do?” said Handy, who was not involved in the study. “How do we get more people walking and bicycling in the U.S.?”
Anne Lusk, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, said the study’s results make sense.
“What I found most exciting about this excellent research is the applicability,” she said. “The issue then becomes should we improve our transit, walking or bicycling opportunities simultaneously or should we focus on one of the three?”
Lusk said her first choice is bicycles — and not just because of global warming, fluctuating gas prices or the economic downturn. When Dutch researchers asked people to match emotions with various forms of travel, she said, “The greatest emotion was joy for bicycling.”