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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Use it (transit) to lose it (weight)

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 17, 2010

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  Charlotte LYNX light rail (courtesy of Payton Chung)

Science Daily reports that, in a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the RAND Corporation have found that construction of a light-rail system (LRT) resulted in increased physical activity (walking) and subsequent weight loss by people served by the LRT.  From Science Daily:

“Using two surveys, one collecting data prior to the completion of an LRT in Charlotte, North Carolina, the second after completion, investigators found that using light rail for commuting was associated with reductions in body mass index (BMI) over time. Specifically, LRT reduced BMI by an average of 1.18 kg/m2 compared to non-LRT users in the same area over a 12-18 month follow-up period. This is equivalent to a relative weight loss of 6.45 lbs for a person who is 5'5. LRT users were also 81% less likely to become obese over time.”

It makes intuitive sense, given that taking transit inevitably involves walking.  I don’t know that I would have predicted an average change that substantial, though.  The study also found the following associations with LRT usage:

  • More positive perceptions of one’s neighborhood
  • 15 percent lower odds of obesity
  • 9 percent higher odds of meeting weekly recommended physical activity through walking
  • 11 percent higher odds of meeting recommended physical activity levels of vigorous exercise [note: running to catch the train?]
  • 81 percent reduced odds of “becoming obese over time”

The lead researcher was John M. MacDonald, professor of criminology (!) at Penn.

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page


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ChewieAug 17 2010 10:28 AM

In a country as overweight as the USA it's critical to highlight research such as this.

People need to understand that there is a link between sedentary transportation and the health problems (including death) and high health care costs that come with overweight and obesity.

Hence, improving transit is not just good for the environment, and for people who cannot afford or physically use cars, but also for health.

EricAug 18 2010 09:10 PM

I think "more positive perceptions of one's neighborhood" and "11% higher odds for meeting daily recommended vigorous activity" are really telling factors influencing weight loss.

I live in the South End here in Charlotte, two blocks from one of the light rail stations. I sporadically use the light rail (since I prefer walking to Uptown and my job location is not on the line). But I certainly make use of the excellent pedestrian infrastructure new developments and the City have brought in for walk-up connectivity to the stations.

This is a great environment for picking up running/walking/biking as habits. Every day, the sidewalks and the street life on them just get better here. A multi-use path travels parallel to the rail line for quite a few miles and gets well-used by joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists. I suspect it is not just light rail use, so much as the environment the light rail helps create that really matters here.

But maybe light rail related development just attracts healthier people. Having 1000+ relatively affordable and pet-friendly apartment units developed in the past 2 years in the South End has certainly increased the proportion of users with active lifestyles, I would say.

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