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Commute by Foot or Bike for Better Health

By Jane Hart, MD

Healthnotes Newswire (July 30, 2009)—A new study confirms what we all know deep down: By making your commute double as your daily exercise, you can improve heart health, weight management, and fitness according to the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Active commute may reduce cardiovascular risk

This study looked at the association between biking or walking to work and its effect on obesity, fitness, and cardiovascular risk factors for 2,364 men and women, 18 to 30 years old, who worked outside the home and were enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study.

Over a 20-year period, researchers followed participants and collected information on the number of miles and minutes they actively commuted to work and what form of commuting they used. Participants’ blood pressure and cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin and glucose levels were measured and fitness was measured by symptom-limited exercise stress testing.

Among the participants, 16.7% actively commuted to work. Men who actively commuted had lower obesity rates and reduced cardiovascular risk, identified by reduced blood pressure, triglycerides, and insulin levels compared with men who did not actively commute. Both men and women who actively commuted had higher fitness levels compared with those who did not actively commute.

“Walking or biking to work is one way to increase physical activity, and our research suggests that there may be cardiovascular benefits to doing so,” said Penny Gordon-Larson, PhD from the Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is unclear how much active commuting is needed to reduce cardiovascular risk, but in this study the average commute to work was around 20 minutes for men and 17 minutes for women.

Tips for increasing daily activity

Most people are aware of the health benefits of exercise but finding a way to get enough daily physical activity can be a challenge. Here are some tips for increasing daily activity:

• Walk or ride a bike. We have become spoiled by our ability to drive places where we could just as easily walk or ride a bicycle. Increase fitness levels and reduce the carbon footprint by walking or bicycling to the store or to visit family and friends. If that isn’t possible for you, take opportunities to walk up stairs and to park farther from destinations so you can walk a few blocks.

• Use your exercise equipment. How often does someone buy a piece of exercise equipment only to have it collect dust in the corner? Make a new commitment to use the exercise equipment you have to improve your health.

• Begin or end your day with exercise. It may not be possible for everyone to actively commute to work so for those people it is important to start or end the day with a brisk walk, bicycle ride, or other form of exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a combination of aerobic and strength-training exercises every week with a minimum of 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise to prevent disease and optimize health.

• Make it social. Take a “walking lunch” with a friend to unwind and refresh before heading back to the office in the afternoon (leaving ten minutes to enjoy a healthy protein-packed lunch). Exercise buddies can also help motivate for the early morning or late afternoon exercise sessions that can seem daunting as part of a long day.

(Arch Intern Med 2009;169:1216–23)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.

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