It’s pretty clear by now that having a car and driving around in it all day is really unhealthy. A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois found that a robust mass transit system can lead to healthier citizens and help fight obesity.

There’s a strong correlation between people who use public transportation regularly and a reduction in obesity rates. Image credits: Pexels.

Walking is good for you, seriously. We don’t do nearly as much walking as we should, but we do way more sitting than we should and it’s really bad for us. A plethora of studies have shown this, and yet society is in no hurry to change its sitting ways. We sit at work, we sit at home, and we sit while we drive — which is extra bad. For starters, it can be pretty hard to stand or walk while working (especially in jobs which involve computers), and everyone wants to relax while at home. But driving a car can, in many cases, be replaced by walking, cycling, or taking public transportation. This way, you wouldn’t just be taking the healthy route, but you’d cause fewer emissions, help clear out the traffic, and in more cases than not save some money.

This study shows just that. Simply using public transportation (even mass transit) instead of driving makes you healthier and helps fight obesity.

“As local communities seek to allocate public funds to projects that will provide the most benefit to their residents, our research suggests that investing in convenient and affordable public transit systems may improve public health by reducing obesity, thereby providing more value than had been previously thought,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at Illinois.

Alongside graduate student Zhaowei She and Douglas M. King, a lecturer of industrial and enterprise systems engineering, Jacobson analyzed publicly available data on county health and transportation (2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and transportation data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey), correlating the two. They controlled for other factors which may affect obesity rates (something which is always a potential source of error), but ended up with a pretty telling result: for every 1 percent increase in a county’s population who frequently ride public transit, obesity rates dropped 0.2 percent. So while the idea that using public transportation reduces obesity is not new, what this study does is that it puts a figure on that idea — and the figure is highly encouraging.

This goes to show that even walking short distances can make a big difference. Walking a couple of small streets might not seem like much, but when you’re not walking at all during the day, it can be pretty important. The average American only takes 5,900 steps a day, which is half of what’s generally recommended.

The study only analyzed the health impact of using public transportation, but the environmental aspect is also significant. Cleaner cities need fewer cars on the road, and that’s exactly what buses, trams, subways, and trains can do. It’s also cheaper than driving around all day.
Journal Reference: Zhaowei She, Douglas M. King, Sheldon H. Jacobson — Analyzing the impact of public transit usage on obesity. DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.03.010
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