That, sadly, is the finding of a new study on methods of active transport in the United States, recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Active transport is defined as walking, biking, non-motorized wheelchairs, skateboarding, or inline skating, and most health authorities agree that these are important elements in the fight to keep any society fit and healthy.
Unfortunately, the results of a study of cross-sectional data covering two years in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicates that fewer than one-fourth of Americans engage in these forms of transportation for longer than ten minutes continuously during a normal week.
More active transport use = less obesity
These findings are even more shocking when one compares the rates of active transport usage in various countries to obesity rates in those countries. As the study authors point out, "Countries with the highest levels of active transportation generally had the lowest obesity rates." For example, one recent study found that in the United States, where only 12% of the population regularly walk or bike or use other active forms of transportation, 1/3 of the population is clinically obese. To compare this with other countries with a more physically active population, 67% of commuters in Latvia, 62% in Sweden, and 52% in the Netherlands utilize forms of active transport regularly. The obesity rate in Latvia is 14%, in Sweden it is 9%, and in the Netherlands it is 11%. Similar statistics were found in Australia (14% active transport, 21% obesity) and Canada (19% active transport, 23% obesity).
In addition, studies have shown that people who use active transport have significantly lower body mass indexes and much lower incidences of hypertension than those who do not. Numerous health benefits have been attributed to walking, bicycling, or using more active means to commute to work or do one's shopping. So why – especially with all of the public interest in and articles written about "getting more exercise" lately – don't Americans do more of it?
In many cases, it's all about infrastructure
Living as I do in the Netherlands, I can attest to the relative ease of active transport. Bike paths – safely separated from motorized traffic – are everywhere. Everywhere. There is literally no place you can't get to in the Netherlands on a bicycle. And there are always places to park your bikes when you get where you're going. Plus, the compact, dense towns lend themselves to walking as well, because almost everything you need is only a few blocks away.
This is not the case in the United States. There are simple infrastructure reasons why America has one of the lowest rates of active transport participation in the world. Generations have gotten used to transportation policies that emphasize automobile commuting and, in fact, almost render it necessary. Zoning laws have separated residential communities from the commercial areas that service and supply them by such distances that walking or biking is in many cases infeasible.
The result is that in a very real sense, America's transportation policies have become its health policies. By making it difficult or impossible to utilize active transportation options, these policies have caused or added to the epidemics of inactivity and obesity that the nation faces.
Professor James F. Sallis, chief of behavioral medicine at the University of California, San Diego says that this new study provides "powerful evidence from a large national sample that active transportation is just as beneficial to health as leisure-time physical activity. Not surprisingly, the findings highlight that transportation policies that essentially ignore walking and cycling appear to be contributing to the major chronic diseases that account for 80 percent of healthcare costs."
Europeans walk three times as far and cycle five times as far as Americans do, which translates to burning off an estimated 5 to 10 pounds of fat per year, and it shows, in their overall health and fitness statistics. The study authors caution that we shouldn't take their findings and use them to affix blame, but rather use them to urge local, state, and national governments to make the kinds of infrastructure and policy changes that would make active transportation options more available, and thus more attractive. If it becomes easier and safer to walk or ride bikes, people will do it…simple as that.