Active commuters more fit, less fat

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — People who walk or bike to work tend to be in better physical shape than those who drive or take public transportation, according to a new study. The findings also suggest that the health rewards of an active commute are even more pronounced for men.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that men and women who were active commuters performed better on a fitness test. They also found that men who walk or bike have lower obesity rates as well as healthier triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and insulin levels, says study author Penny Gordon-Larsen, a nutrition associate professor in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“We don’t know why women don’t reap all the same health benefits as men,” says Gordon-Larsen, an obesity epidemiologist. “We can speculate—women may not be exercising as intensely or it may be that they are commuting shorter distances. But for both sexes, we see significant health benefits to walking or biking to work.”

For most adults, 60 minutes of brisk walking each day is sufficient to meet physical activity guidelines for avoiding weight gain, Gordon-Larsen says, and walking is an activity most people can do.

“Walking or biking to work is one way to increase physical activity,” says Janne Boone-Heinonen, a postdoctoral nutrition researcher at UNC and coauthor of the study. And while the benefits of exercise in general have been studied quite a bit, she notes, not much research has been conducted on the cardiovascular and overall health benefits of  “non-leisure” activities like active commuting.

Gordon-Larsen and colleagues studied 2,364 adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study who worked outside the home. At examinations conducted between 2005 and 2006, participants reported the length of their commute in minutes and miles, including details on the percentage of the trip taken by car, public transportation, walking, or bicycling. Researchers also recorded participants’ height, weight, and other health variables, including blood pressure and fitness levels as assessed by a treadmill test. In addition, subjects wore an accelerometer to measure their levels of physical activity during at least four days of the study period.

The average length of active commuters’ trips was 20 minutes for men and 17 minutes for women. However, fewer than two in 10 (16.7 percent) of the participants used any means of active commuting to reach their workplace.

The results add to existing evidence that walking or biking to work is beneficial, the authors note.

“Ultimately it would be wonderful to see more people walking and biking to work, but to make this happen, we need to make walking and biking safe and accessible by reducing environmental barriers to activity,” Gordon-Larsen says.

Researchers from Kaiser Permanente, the University of Minnesota, the University of Oslo (Norway), and the University of Alabama at Birmingham also coauthored the report published in the July 13 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

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