Is Your Car Making You Fat?
How to break the drive-everywhere habit
By Leanna Skarnulis
Reviewed By Cynthia Haines, MD
"My car is making me fat" sounds about as plausible as "My dog ate my homework." But don't laugh. The truth is that the lack of physical activity in our daily lives is a huge contributor to obesity. And what contributes more to inactivity than our dependence on the automobile?
A recent study of the link between driving and obesity showed a result that surprised even its lead researcher: Every 30 minutes you spend each day in a car increases your risk of being obese by 3%.
"Three percent for a half-hour is a heck of a result," says Lawrence D. Frank, PhD, who led the Georgia Institute of Technology study involving nearly 11,000 Atlanta-area residents.
The study also showed that:
A Matter of Mindset
We live in a nation with the world's lowest gas prices. Many of us are in the habit of driving or riding everywhere. So if your car is sabotaging your weight control efforts, what can you do?
"Get into the mindset of 'I could walk that,'" says Susan Moores, RD. "Something like 80% of our car trips are 1 mile or less. We need to stop and think about walking or biking to buy stamps or pick up a movie." She adds that rising gas prices might help us do just that.
Experts say there's a definite correlation between walking and weight management.
"It depends on the type of walking you do," says Moores. "Walking to or from your car probably has little effect, but if you're walking ... for more than three minutes, it has a positive effect. Also, walk briskly, so you feel somewhat breathless but can still carry on a conversation."
Help! I Live in Suburbia
How easy it is to get out of your car and walk often depends on where you live.
"Some places, it just isn't safe," says Moores. "Drivers aren't used to seeing bike riders or pedestrians. They're preoccupied with talking on their phones."
Still, it isn't a lost cause, she tells WebMD. She offers these tips for walking more wherever you are:
Where You Live
The Georgia Tech study didn't analyze the attitudes behind participants' behavior.
"We don't know whether people are sedentary because of where they live or if sedentary people choose to live in environments that aren't walkable," says Frank. "Also, do people trade off living in walkable places for other reasons, like schools or crime rates?"
Frank and his family moved to Vancouver from Atlanta and chose a walkable neighborhood.
"We like to walk, and we're more physically active than we were in Atlanta where the environment wasn't walkable," he says.
Where are you likely to find walking-friendly neighborhoods?
"Often, any neighborhood built before 1950 is walkable," Frank tells WebMD. "Also, in college towns it's easy to walk or bike."
Moores, who has a nutrition consulting business in Minneapolis/St. Paul, says creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment will take a commitment from developers and communities.
Some companies with workplace wellness programs offer bonuses for people who don't use the parking garage, or for people who wear pedometers and record a certain number of steps.