Lightrail causes weight loss

photo from Denver RTD photo library

photo from Denver RTD photo library

Using light rail leads to weight loss? That’s improbable!

So-called active commuting used to be the only commuting.  You wanted to go somewhere, you walked or perhaps rode a horse.  Then cars came along and took over our commuting.  The layout of the built environment was designed with only car transportation in mind.  People were expected to live in far flung suburbs and drive absolutely everywhere: work, school, grocery store, post office, library, movies, church, etc.  Those destinations were surrounded by giant parking lots.  Walking and biking were afterthoughts, if they were thought of at all.  No wonder obesity became the norm.

A new study from Britain found that when people switched to active commuting, they lost weight.  Most significantly, they lost weight without deliberately dieting.  No surprise, the longer the active commute, the more weight lost.  People who switched from an active commute to driving gained weight.

How does a light rail system fit in with active commuting?  A study from North Carolina looked at the effect of a light rail system on obesity and physical activity in one neighborhood.  People who used the light rail system lost on average 6-1/2 lbs during the study period compared to non-users.  Why did this happen?  The light rail riders walked to and from the station, 1.2 miles per day on average.  So without changing into special exercise clothes and scheduling a visit to a gym or taking a lunchtime jog, they added physical activity to their day every day.

I think the Big Picture message is this: physical activity should not be perceived as a separate part of your day. It should be built into your day.  When exercise is a separate activity, it’s easy to let it slide if the rest of your schedule gets crowded.  And it’s easy for non-exercisers to make excuses: “Oh I can’t afford a gym membership”, or “I just don’t have time after work to jog” or “It’s too cold/hot/dark to go for a walk after work.”  Active transportation eliminates those types of excuses.

The other interesting thing about active commuting is that people in these studies lost weight without dieting. They didn’t change food behavior one way or the other.  They simply became more active.  The negative feelings of deprivation that go along with calorie restriction weren’t there.

The catch: realistically few people can take advantage of active commuting right now.  If you live far from your work or school, and there is no light rail or other reliable public transportation, you may be stuck in a car.  The good news: young adults and the companies that employ them are deliberately locating in denser urban environments so people can walk or bike easily to work or any other destination.  If the wave of the future is more city-type living, that may help combat the obesity epidemic and all its associated health problems.

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