Oct
15
2016

Commuting Affects Your Health

A research report from Great Britain was recently reviewed by CNN; it revealed that commuting affects your health.

The longer we commute to work and back the more downtime we have where we do not move our muscles. But we also are exposed to more unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks that make us deposit more fat. The original research report was published here. What were the elements of this study?

Commuting affects your health, study design

Three consecutive annual waves of the British Household Panel Survey were utilized. These are longitudinal surveys of nationally representative households in Great Britain. The sample years were 2004/2005, 2005/2006 and 2006/2007. There were 15,791 participants in the study; of these 4,056 entered the study. The main mode of travel to work was determined at each time point. The self-reported height and weight was taken to calculate the body mass index (BMI) at baseline and at 2 years. Attention was paid to switches of transportation mode (that is from active to sedentary and vice versa).

Commuting affects your health, results of study

  1. Switching from car commute privately to active travel (walking, bicycling) or public transport resulted in a significant loss in BMI. There were even larger reductions of BMI’s in those who enrolled in the first year in active transportation, because of the longer exposure. Those with the longest journeys who used active transportation had significant weight losses.
  2. A group of 787 people switched from active travel or public transport to the use of their private cars as transportation. This resulted in a significant BMI increase.
  3. The study concluded that any interventions that would allow private car commuters to switch to an active mode of transportation could contribute to the population’s BMI being reduced significantly.

Commuting affects your health, Cambridge experiment

In a 2016 study from Cambridge (Great Britain) a similar experiment was done. They studied traffic patterns in the county of Cambridgeshire. The city compared 1143 adults working in the city with 1710 people who used the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway. The public had access to a new bus network that has connections with pedestrian pathways and cyclists since 2011. Longer commuting journeys incorporated walking and cycling, for which otherwise people used a private car and public commute. When officials explained the benefit of active travel to people, there was a 1.8-fold increase of active travel. There was also a 2-fold decrease of commuting solely by car. The weekly cycling commuting time had increased to 1.34-fold compared to the previous level.

Active commute most beneficial

People who at baseline were the vast majority in being inactive in their commute, were the ones who appreciated an active commute most. There was an association of active commuting, greater overall physical activity with an improvement of health and weight loss.

Commuting affects your health, US study

A multi-city study involved the largest 3,914 municipal jurisdictions, which were located in 473 of the most populous U.S. counties. This involved 48 states and the District of Columbia. In order to encourage more active commuting (walking, cycling) many municipalities developed pedestrian zones or pedestrian-friendly zones with adjacent bus transportation. A new concept of transit-oriented developments or districts (TODs) was adopted. TODs are higher density areas that are compact. They are mixed use areas, which you find around transit stops. This encourages walking. The study was completed in 2016. It showed that the TOD zones had higher occupancy rates. Many house owners had no car as they commuted using public transportation only.

Summary about transit-oriented developments or districts (TODs)

TOD zones were more populous, people in it had higher income, and they were more racially diverse and younger. The occupants of TOD zones had a 2.1-fold higher rate of using public transportation and they also had a 2.48-fold higher rate of using active transportation to work.

Commuting affects your health, general comments

The majority of commuters in England and Wales spent 56 minutes in their cars going to and from work in 2013. In London this daily commuting time is 79 minutes. The US data are similar.

With a well-developed public transportation system the authorities developed various programs designed to replace at least some part of the commute by active commuting. This is good for your metabolism, it is good for your cardiovascular status and it gets you away from snacking junk foods driving in your car.

Commuting leads to stress

A survey from London, England polled more than 1500 commuters. 55% reported increased stress levels, 33% reported increased snacking, 29% admitted to fast food consumption, 36% complained about sleeping problems, 41% said that they reduced physical activity and 44% reported that they had less quality time with their friends and family. 58% felt that flexible work hours would improve their health and wellbeing. Remember that how you are commuting affects your health.

My own experience watching commuting in various cities

Over the years I have traveled extensively in Germany, Austria and the US. In Europe it is interesting how many years ago the pedestrian zones in the old town centers have reshaped the commuting. The U-Bahn (subway) and commuter trains have intermingling networks that shoot you out to pedestrian zones. There is no escaping from it, you have to walk before you can catch a connecting bus or tram.

Vienna (Austria)

Vienna (Austria) for instance allows you to get out at the U-Bahn station of Stephansplatz, which is a pedestrian zone around the Stephan’s Church (Stephanskirche). There is an amazing array of shops and in a side alley you can even find a Starbucks, if this is what you are looking for. When you walked enough, you hop onto any of the U-Bahn connections. This brings you where you need to be. If you are too far from your goal, hop onto a tram and enjoy the sightseeing. There are also buses that can get you there. It is all covered under the same Vienna card, which I appreciated as a visitor. It is best to park your car in the periphery and use the commuting network to get you to where you want to go.

Munich (Germany)

Munich (Germany) has a lot of cycle paths, which run parallel to the pedestrian paths. I was interesting to see business people in black suits cycle to work. Otherwise there are the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses that all interconnect.

Münster (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany)

Münster (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany) has an extensive network of cycle paths and pedestrian walks. Buses and trams are also constantly running. The old historic town is a pedestrian zone, but anybody can commute to anywhere between walking or using the bus/tram. I found it astonishing this spring when I visited; there were hundreds of people, young and old cycling to and from work. The employers are providing huge metal racks where people can attach their bikes to with a lock.

Berlin

Berlin is another multi level commuting city in Germany. You can use the U-Bahn, S-Bahn (commuter train), bus or tram to get to work. Here is an informative video that explains.  I did not see many cyclists there. But hundreds of people are walking. Yes, there are many pedestrian zones and they interconnect with all of the commuter options. Berlin spreads over a vast area, so the S-Bahn, which is a local commuter train is particularly important. For the shorter connecting trips people commute by the U-Bahn (subway). Buses and trams plus walking do the fine-tuning to get to your destination.

Vancouver (BC, Canada)

Vancouver (BC, Canada) has some cycle pathways in the West end, close to Stanley Park. Otherwise there is a network of buses, the Skytrain, Sea Bus (between North Vancouver and downtown) and the West Coast Express (a commuter train). For the size of the city I think that Vancouver could benefit from studying some of the transportation modalities in Europe to entice the car travelers to use public transportation. When I travel to Vancouver, I use my own car, as it is so much faster to reach any goal. Public transportation is at this point not effectively connecting all the areas in this city.

Commuting Affects Your Health

Commuting Affects Your Health

Conclusion

In the past we often heard that there was nothing that could be done about traffic jams and commuter stress. Think again. Revitalization of city cores all over Europe, Great Britain and in the US has taken the TOD concept to heart and active commuting has become a reality. Whenever you can, use alternatives like cycling, walking and public transit to get to and from work. Studies have even shown that when you become an active commuter you likely will also become more active after work. Even using public transit makes the commute more active, as you are not sitting for an hour or more in your vehicle.

Use public transit, not your own car to commute

You have to get out and walk in order to catch a connection. This all helps to keep you physically more fit than the commuting style, where you sit in a vehicle and possibly dip into junk food. It is not only about body mass index reduction and decreasing your waistline. Active commuting is also a lot less stressful than the passive modality, where traffic jams add to frustration and stress at the beginning and at the end of a workday.

Apr
07
2013

Caution, Processed Food Ahead

During the last month there have been three large studies that drew media attention regarding healthy food intake. The first study dealt with processed meats (sausages, ham, bacon). Over 12.7 years those consuming 160 Gm per day (=5.64 oz.) were 44% more likely to die prematurely than those who ate only 20 Gm (=0.7 oz.) of processed meat per day. The study included 10 European countries including about 500,000 people over almost 13 years; nearly 10,000 people died from cancer and 5,500 from heart problems.

Then there was the Harvard study that analyzed 114 national dietary surveys around the globe and came to the conclusion that every year there are 180,000 obesity related deaths from overuse of sugary drinks. The US stands third highest on the ranking list regarding deaths from drinking sugary soda pops. The deaths are due to heart attacks, strokes and diabetes, which associate with obesity.

As if this was not enough the third bad news story was published shortly after regarding salt overuse: At a cardiology conference in New Orleans Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the main author regarding the sugar study mentioned above, revealed a long-term study regarding salt intake between 1990 and 2010 .  He determined that 15% of all deaths that occur around the world every year (which translated into 2.3 million people) are the result of salt overuse. The recommended salt limit is 1500 mg per day. But many people in the study consumed 4000 to 6000 mg of salt per day or more. This led to hypertension, heart attacks and strokes with the yearly mortality rates indicated.

Caution, Processed Food Ahead

Caution, Processed Food Ahead

 

What do these studies have in common and why is processed food so devastating?

All these studies pointed out that processed foods are dangerous to your health. Sausages, ham and bacon contain a lot of fat and salt; they are full of extra calories and they elevate your fatty substances in your blood (triglycerides, cholesterol). The extra salt raises your blood pressure. Processed meat is also poor in omega-3-fatty acids. No wonder that they can cause heart problems and cancer.

Next we have the sugary soda drinks, but also the hidden sugar in starchy processed foods like cookies, bagels, bread and cakes. Dough and pasta digests within 30 minutes into sugar, which your gut absorbs and your liver processes as extra calories to be stored as fat. Where? As visceral fat and subcutaneous fat,  and the end result is obesity. At the same time the sugar from soft drinks and the sugar from starches stimulate the pancreas to produce extra insulin, which leads to hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance. This is known as metabolic syndrome and was found to be an independent risk factor for heart attacks apart from high LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides. We know for quite some time that obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are all associated with a higher rate of deaths from heart attacks and strokes.

Finally, there is the salt overuse story. In 2009 the same Harvard group that gave us the world data on salt mortality now, stated that 102,000 Americans die every year from salt overconsumption. The same study cited that 82,000 Americans die needlessly every year due to their love affair with deep fried foods (due to high trans fatty acids) , and 84,000 die from a lack of omega-3-fatty acids in their diet, which when present in the diet protects from heart attacks and strokes. What does food processing do? It reduces or eliminates dietary omega-3-fatty acids, adds cheap oils containing omega-6-fatty acids (the fatty acids that lead to inflammation), adds salt, sugar and starch. It is the perfect recipe to die from strokes and heart attacks. The same research group from Harvard University did a study in India, published in 2010, where they established that salt overconsumption caused insulin resistance and this was the cause of higher mortality from heart attacks and strokes.

Other studies pointing to the dangers of processed food

Deficits in cognitive function (dementia or Alzheimer’s disease) have been linked to dietary habits, particularly sugar and starch overconsumption. Research has established that hyperinsulinemia or insulin resistance is responsible for the degenerative changes in the brain of Alzheimer patients. This study also pointed out that these diets are typically very low or deficient in omega-3-fatty acids, which is necessary for normal nerve cell metabolism in the brain. The lack of it leads to brain cell disease like Alzheimer’s and a lack of omega-3 fatty acids in nerves leads to damaged nerves which in turn cause excruciating pain.This condition is also known as neuropathy. Here is a good blog about why you should avoid processed foods, if you want to keep a clear mind as you are aging.

In the middle ages it was first observed that overindulging in red meat and sausages caused gout attacks.Gout was known as a disease of the rich. Higher uric acid levels, which are found in gout have been linked to higher mortality rates from heart attacks and stokes. A low purine diet can lower the risk for gout and also the risk for heart attacks and strokes. It is interesting that this type of a diet is also devoid of processed food at the same time.

What can we do to reduce dangers to our health?

We have identified the suspects; it is sugar, starchy foods, salt and processed meats. Instead of just buying precooked meals, boxed foods and other processed foods from the center of the grocery store or from a fast food place, look for original ingredients more at the periphery of the grocery store.  Read food labels and look for sugar, fat and salt content. Start buying organic food and buy the ingredients you need to prepare a meal by yourself. When you start preparing your own meals with organic ingredients, you may as well avoid the toxins that I described in a recent blog.

By buying organic foods, you largely avoid these toxins. Don’t exceed your daily limit of 1500 mg of salt, as your kidneys are not able to process this and would cause you to get high blood pressure. Personally I cut out all sugar and starch from my diet since 2001. This includes potatoes, pasta, bread, bagels, French fries, toast etc. However, you will get enough complex carbohydrates (from vegetables and greens), which get absorbed much slower and do not cause the insulin surge by the pancreas as highly processed carbs would do. You want to eat foods rich in omega-3-fatty acids, but there are problems with seafood (even salmon) as it is often contaminated with mercury. You can circumvent this by taking three capsules of high potency, molecularly distilled omega-3 per day. This is free of toxins and protects your brain and nerves from the dangers mentioned above. Your organic vegetables and greens have enough natural minerals in them that you will hardly ever require to add salt to your food. Do not add extra salt when you cook or when you eat your prepared meals. Use spices instead. Also avoid eating out too often. Restaurants are notorious for overusing salt.

More information on nutrition: http://nethealthbook.com/health-nutrition-and-fitness/nutrition/

Here is a useful blog that helps you to identify the problems with processed food and what you need to do to improve your food intake. http://www.healthy-eating-politics.com/processed-foods.html

Other links:

1. Processed meat: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/processed-meat-cancer-heart-disease-death-risk_n_2829092.html

2. Sugary drinks: http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/19/health/sugary-drinks-deaths/index.html?hpt=he_c2

3. Alzheimer’s and pre-diabetes with insulin resistance: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/17/carb-diet-alzheimers/1637481/

Last edited Nov. 6, 2014