UT Study Links Transportation Tendencies with Obesity

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KNOXVILLE — Walking or bicycling around town could have an added benefit beyond saving money at the gas pump. It may help with weight control, say researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

A new study conducted by faculty in the UT Obesity Research Center shows countries where walking and bicycling are common tend to have lower rates of obesity. The study is published in the November issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

While this finding is no surprise, the cross-disciplinary study is unique in unifying transportation and health statistics, and the information could be used to help justify the need for more walking and biking infrastructure in the U.S.

The study’s lead author, David Bassett, co-director of the Obesity Research Center and professor in the Department of Exercise, Sport and Leisure Studies, said more people are thinking about transportation issues to save gas and money. On top of that, Americans are obsessed with losing weight, and the latest statistics show about one in three U.S. adults are obese.

“Many people blame this on things like technology, TV, Internet and sedentary jobs, but what we found was that there are other industrialized nations who have similar, high standards of living, who do not suffer from obesity to nearly the same extent that the U.S. does,” he said. “I truly believe that the transportation modes in various countries are important in explaining international differences in obesity rates.”

The study compared national surveys of travel behavior and health indicators in Europe, North America and Australia. Active transportation, defined as walking, bicycling and use of public transit, is common in Europe, where cities are more compact and more infrastructure and coordination exist to provide active transportation. North America and Australia have a higher dependence on driving.

“European countries made this choice long before concerns about the obesity epidemic, global warming, air pollution or oil shortages. Their governments simply decided that this was the most practical solution to moving people from one place to another, and now those people in those countries are enjoying the health benefits of active transportation,” Bassett said.

Based on transportation data from 2000, Europeans walked an average of 382 kilometers per person a year compared to Americans at 140 kilometers a year. They also bicycled more, 188 kilometers a year to 40 kilometers a year for Americans.

Health data in 2002 showed that the U.S., at 23.9 percent, had the highest rate of obesity of any country in the study. Switzerland had the lowest at 8 percent while the Netherlands had 8.1 percent and Sweden had 9.4 percent. These statistics are based on health interview surveys that rely on self-report of height and weight.

The UT study cited other research findings, including a study of 10,878 people in Atlanta that found each hour per day spent driving was associated with a 6 percent increase in the likelihood of being obese. Another study referenced found 78 percent of New Jersey train commuters met the national recommendation for physical activity while only 45 percent of all U.S. adults meet the recommendation.

“An important area for future study is to determine whether changes in infrastructure to allow more walking and cycling, along with expanded public transit systems, would increase active transportation and have an impact on obesity rates,” the study states.

Bassett’s coauthors on the study are John Pucher and Ralph Buehler of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University; Dixie L. Thompson, chair of the Department of Exercise, Sport and Leisure Studies at UT; and Scott Crouter of the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

To view the study, go to http://www.humankinetics.com/jpah/currentIssue.cfm.


Contacts:

Elizabeth Davis, UT media relations, (865) 974-5179, elizabeth.davis@tennessee.edu

David Bassett, (865) 974-8766, dbassett@utk.edu

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