Spring in Motion: Cars and Physical Activity

In Motion – It’s about more than walking and cycling: Getting out of your car might be enough to improve health
Spring is here and the bike racks around my office at the Royal University Hospital are nearly full by the time I arrive at work. What a great sign that Saskatoon has started to “Spring in Motion,” walking, cycling and taking public transportation to move around the city. As part of “Spring in Motion” I’ll be writing a series of blog posts talking about transportation and health research. This post is the first in that series:
Last week I spent 20 minutes crossing the University Bridge at rush hour. Many of you have probably had the same experience. Waiting in traffic is frustrating, annoying and time consuming. All that waiting also got me thinking about what all that time in cars was doing to my health. We all know we should do more physical activity, and not having enough time is one of the big reasons people aren’t more active. But how much time do we actually spend sitting in cars? And how does that relate to physical activity and obesity. 
In a study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity researchers estimated that 11% of peoples total energy expenditure in a day in the United States is spent sitting in a car.1Walking on the other hand accounted for just 1% of energy expenditure. Even though driving does not require much energy, it does not make us breathe a little harder or sweat, it does count for lots of our total energy because we spend a lot of time doing it. A recent report by Active Healthy Kids Canada shows that walking is declining among children and the percentage of adolescents who take all of their trips by car has gone up.2 In Toronto, more than 30% of 8-to-14-year-olds who live a walkable distance to school are driven by their parents.3
What does sitting the car mean for health?A study by Dr. Larry Frank, a professor a the University of British Columbia, showed that each hour spent in a car per day was associated with a 6% increase in the chance of being obese. In a more recent study researchers from Australia followed people over 4 years and measured their physical activity, weight and transportation habits. The researchers found that daily car commuters gained approximately 1.1 pounds per year compared to a 0.6 pound weight gain for people who didn’t use a car. 
So what does it all mean for you moving around your city?
Before you make a trip, think about whether you need to go out at all. Could you make the trip another time or do some planning to get 2 or 3 things done in one trip? That will give you more time to do other things and you will spend less time in your car.
If you need to make a trip, think about whether or not you need to take your car. Can you walk, cycle or take public transportation? All of these modes of transportation will help you get physically active.
Daniel Fuller, PhD
Canadian Institutes of Health Research Post-Doctoral Fellow
Department of Community Health and Epidemiology
University of Saskatchewan
1.     Dong L, Block G, Mandel S. Activities Contributing to Total Energy Expenditure in the United States: Results from the NHAPS Study. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2004;1:4. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-1-4.
2.     Mammen G, Faulkner G, Buliung R, Lay J. Understanding the drive to escort: a cross-sectional analysis examining parental attitudes towards children’s school travel and independent mobility. BMC Public Health. 2012;12(1):862. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-9-122.
3.     Active Healthy Kids Canada. 2013 Report Card. Are We Driving Our Kids Into Unhealthy Habits? http://www.activehealthykids.ca/Home.aspx
4.     Frank LD, Andresen MA, Schmid TL. Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2004;27:87–96.
5.     Sugiyama T, Ding D, Owen N. Commuting by Car. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2013;44(2):169–173. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2012.09.063.

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