Get out of the driver’s seat

While I endorse being in the metaphorical driver’s seat when it comes to your health, your health may be better off if you get out of the literal driver’s seat.

No, I’m not talking about vehicular-related injuries, I’m talking about taking the train. Just-released study results show that when cities improve light rail public transit systems, their citizens may need to start shopping for smaller pants.

Simply walking to and from transit stations, instead of transporting yourself door-to-door in your car, burns enough calories that the average 5-foot-5 commuter who used light rail transit (LRT) to commute to and from work lost an average of 6.45 pounds over 12 to 18 months.

Six-plus pounds may not seem like a lot, but considering that most Americans gain a pound over the winter holidays, taking the train could more than compensate. (Also, if you don’t think gaining a pound over the holidays is bad, you’re sort of right…but most people never lose that pound. They add to it every year, and that is bad!) So never question the power of adding non-exercise physical activity to your day.

Researchers from the Urban Environmental Studies Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia surveyed about 500 people in Charlotte, N.C. before and after the city finished its LRT system. Study participants were asked their weight, height, physical activity level, what they thought about public transit and the neighborhood environment before and after LRT started running, as well as their plans to use LRT and their actual use. Study results are published in the upcoming August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Apparently, 32 cities in the United States have LRT. Seattle is one such city, and it certainly has helped me add more steps to my daily routine. The nearest stop is about a mile from my house, which suits me just fine, provided it’s not dark or pouring rain or I’m transporting my laptop (the street I walk down could be considered mildly transitional, and I do get tired of police officers telling me to be careful). On days when light rail isn’t the sensible option, I’ll walk a block to the bus stop, because I (heart) mass transit! I use it daily and haul myself all over the city with it.

Lately, I’ve been using light rail a lot, in addition to my regular formal walking/jogging/stationary cycling schedule. Whew, the last week or so I’ve been feeling it in my legs. But I’ve been seeing the results, too, and it’s all good. I rarely drive, which bodes well for my health, since a number of other studies have found an association between the amount of time spent in cars and the likelihood of being obese. (Just a reminder that an association does not necessarily mean one thing causes the other.)

In related news, a study published in the same journal in May linked taking more steps in a day with a lowered risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of factors (excess abdominal weight, high blood pressure, low levels of good HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides in the blood and insulin resistance or high blood sugar levels) that can lead to heart disease and diabetes.

So take the train! Take the bus! Take the ferry! Go for a walk at lunch! Just get up and move!