Active Transport (Part 1): Walking and biking counter high gas prices and bad health: PART I

Pain at the pump may actually be a blessing.  Maybe now we will venture to try alternate, modes of transportation that could improve our health, productivity, and air quality.  

Photo: morganglines

WASHINGTON, March 31. 2012 – Your worst enemy has four tires, an engine, windshield wipers, and is thirsty for oil.  Whether it is an import or domestic, SUV or sedan, hybrid or gas, your car is becoming your biggest liability.  

We are so dependent on our cars, and the freedom it grants us, that we insist to endure the pain at the pump no matter what the cost.  But the answer to this is, and has been right in the palms of your hand; it’s called “active transport.”  By utilizing alternative modes of transportation like mass transit, biking, and walking, you could exponentially improve your life by increasing your physical and financial health, productivity, and contributing to better air quality.

Extended periods of sitting is linked to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type II diabetes.

Preferences for Transportation

For many of us, commuting to work each day often involves putting a key in the ignition.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 86% of us commute to work by car, 5% utilize public transportation, and less than 3% walk to work. 

Evidently, we like our wheels! 

Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), Americans drive an average of 13,476 miles per year, far surpassing the average of 12,000 miles driven in the year 2000.  In fact, according to USDOT, Americans spend an average 25-minutes commuting to work. 

But the fact is that we spend so much time in our cars, it is no wonder why televisions, high quality speakers, seat warmers, leather seats, sun roofs, and other such features for our cars have become so appealing. 

We want our cars “fully loaded”, just as we once preferred to have our meals at McDonalds “Super-Sized,” before they scrapped this option for what some believe was motivated by a need to offer healthier alternatives.

Obesity Rates in Countries More Likely to Use Mass Transit

Understanding exactly how “active transport” can make you healthier requires an understanding of how its prevalence in other countries is strongly correlated with lower rates of obesity, and how the cumulative effects of standing, walking, and cycling are far superior to that of sitting.

National Geographic Society’s 2009 Greendex report sought to study attributes about energy use and conservation among 17,000 consumers in 17 countries.  In comparing the rate of usage of mass transit in the U.S. to that of other countries, the study found that the Chinese were more than 8x more likely to use mass transit daily, the Indians nearly 5x more likely, and the Japanese and Swedes 4x more likely to use mass transit daily.  Canadians and Australians were only twice more likely to use it than Americans.      

Interestingly, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in or near 2009, the obesity rates in Australia and Canada were approximately 25%, not too far behind the 33% obesity rate in America.  In the other countries, where daily mass transit use was exponentially greater, obesity rates were all below 12%; Sweden had an 11% obesity rate, India had a 2% obesity rate, China had a 3% rate, and Japan a 3.9% obesity rate. 

The Cumulative Effects of “Active Transport”

The guiding principle at work here is “energy in” versus “energy out”, which just means if you expend more calories than you take in, you will lose weight.  This means that we should be mindful that just small movements can add up throughout the day to help burn more calories. 

For those of you who may be harboring some skepticism regarding these studies, let’s take a step back and just examine the dynamics of how energy is expended using “active transport.” 

Let’s take your commute to and from the office, which probably takes approximately 1-hour, and involves minimal physical activity.  After all, driving is not much different than sitting on the sofa, with the exception that it requires a bit more concentration, pressing a light pedal, and occasionally turning a steering wheel. 

Here is the formula for computing calories burned while standing and sitting:

STANDING = 0.04 (Energy Expenditure) X Weight (Kg) X Time (minutes spent standing)

SITTING = 0.03 (Energy Expenditure) X Weight (Kg) X Time (minutes spent sitting)

Go ahead and get your calculator out and start the number crunching.  In the meantime, here is a hypothetical to get you thinking.    

If you decide to take the metro in D.C. during peak hours, you know that a mob of people standing on the train await you, as there are far more people riding than seats available. 

Assume that you weigh 135-lbs, roundtrip commute time on the metro is 60-minutes, and you stand for the full duration of the ride. Congratulations!  You have just expended 147kcal (calories) by the time you get off the train. 

Over the course of a 5-day workweek that equates to 735kcals burned from merely standing.    

Let’s not forget though that you will probably spend, on average, around 10-minutes each day waiting for the train to arrive.  That’s nearly an additional 60-minutes of standing, or yet another 147kcal burned.  When accounting for this, you can see that you are now at 882kcal expended (735kcal + 147kcal) at the end of the work week.  You are on the right track (no pun intended).     

Had you driven that week, you would have burned only 110kcal per day, or 550kcal at the end of the week sitting in your car.  That is nearly 330kcal less than had you stood for the full duration of your ride on the metro.

Remember, standing only involves getting up from that seat and on your feet; you don’t need to lift a leg, do jumping-jacks, or squats!

Walking

Just as standing yields many more calories than sitting, walking yields many more calories than standing.  Many commuters walk at a rate of 3mph, which is considered to be a moderate to brisk walk. 

The formula for computing calories burned while walking is:

 0.06 (Energy Expenditure) X Weight (kg) X Time (minutes spent walking)

How long do you walk to get to the metro and to your destination once you get off the train?  If it takes you 10-minutes (20-minutes roundtrip), and you are this 135-lb “brisk walker,” you will burn an additional 73kcal per day, or 365kcal per week. That is an easy number to remember…keep it engraved in your head!  If your destination is staring you right in the face once you hop off the train, you can always take a detour and go to a nearby coffee shop and grab something healthy (not bagels, tarts, and pies) and then walk to work. 

Thus far, by walking 20-minutes each day to and from the metro, and standing while waiting for the train to arrive, as well as for the full duration of the ride, you will have burned a total of 1,247kcal by the end of the work week. 

On the other hand, driving would have only burned 550kcal, which dwarfs in comparison!

Biking 

Many of us hesitate to walk to the metro, or home, simply because walking takes so much time.  Here is a simple solution—buy a bike, a helmet, an odometer, and start pedaling your way to these destinations.  Your need for speed will be satisfied as you will be going approximately 3-4x faster on a bike (10-12mph is a light-moderate pace).   

The great thing about biking is that not only do people tend to enjoy it much more (which means they will stick with it), but it is classified as a “non-weight bearing exercise.”  In other words, there is much less impact on your joints and ligaments when you bike, and therefore less probability of getting injured. So you can do it on consecutive days, and feel more secure that you won’t need to check in to the hospital. 

The formula for computing calories burned while biking (10-12mph) is:

0.10 (Energy Expenditure) X Weight (kg) X Time (minutes spent biking)

Now let’s visit our hypothetical scenario once again, and rather than walking 20-minutes roundtrip to and from the metro, let’s substitute biking in its place.  You would burn 122kcals biking 20-minutes, which is approximately 50 more calories burned than walking 20-minutes. 

This then translates to 250 more calories (50kcal X 5) burned biking at the end of the work week.  Your new grand total when substituting biking for walking would be approximately a whopping 1,500kcal (1,247kcal + 250kcal) burned at the end of the work week, which is now nearly 1,000 more calories burned than had you decided to drive your car to work that week.

Caloric expenditure is not the only thing that we achieve with “active transport”; we also come closer to getting the recommended daily physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is 150-minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week.  This can be broken up into multiple 10-sessions…you don’t need to do 30-minutes in one sitting! 

This is the philosophy behind “active transport,” which helps reinforce the notion that body movement is physical activity, and we can lose weight and increase heart health without a “structured” gym regimen. 

Ultimately, by engaging in physical activity daily and burning more calories, we will reduce our risk of becoming or staying obese, and all the health complications that arise from this pandemic.   

So as the old adage goes “time is money,” maybe it would be wise to think in the same terms regarding our health and tell ourselves “time is activity.” 


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Michael Janati

Michael Janati is a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise, and CPR/AED certified through the American Red Cross.  He has an undergraduate degree in Psychology, and a Masters of Science in Health Promotion Management.

Michael has worked as a fitness manager for a large commercial gym, and has experience training a variety of clientele.  During his employment at an outpatient day program for clients diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, he conducted fitness outings and health/wellness groups.  There, he played an integral role in helping motivate clients to become active as a means of coping with their illnesses.

Michael is competitive in races, having successfully completed a half-marathon, sprint triathlon, an indoor triathlon, as well as a number of 5Ks.  He enjoys running, swimming, tennis, strength-training, flag football, and bowling.   

Currently, he resides in Michigan, where he is working towards his Juris Doctorate.

 

 

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