Use of Light Rail Transit Can Reduce Obesity Risk

As an enthusiastic supporter and user of public transit, I have long suggested that promoting the availability and use of public transportation could go a long way in promoting physical activity and fitness, especially among those who have little time, interest or energy to invest in recreational physical activity.

Simply put, if public transportation is the most efficient way to get from A to B, then more people will spend more time on their feet irrespective of any interest in or motivation for physical activity.

But can the use of public transportation really have a measurable impact on body weight?

This question was addressed by J MacDonald and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, who, in a paper just published in the American Journal of Prventive Medicine, examined the impact of light rail transit (LRT) use on BMI and physical activity.

Data were collected on individuals before (July 2006-February 2007) and after (March 2008-July 2008) completion of an LRT system in Charlotte, North Carolina and BMI, obesity, and physical activity levels were calculated for a comparison of these factors before and after LRT construction.

Data were adjusted for differences in baseline characteristics among LRT and non-LRT users.

Over the course of the study, the use of LRT to commute to work was associated with an average 1.18 reduction in BMI and an 81% reduced risk of becoming obese over time.

Obviously, body weight is only one possible benefit of being more active. It remains to be seen if the use of LRT (or other efficient modes of public transportation) may also help improve or prevent other conditions known to be positively associated with decreased physical activity including hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and perhaps even certain cancers.

Nevertheless, as the authors note, “The results of this study suggest that improving neighborhood environments and increasing the public’s use of LRT systems could provide improvements in health outcomes for millions of individuals.

Thus costs for the construction and promotion of efficient public transit can potentially translate into very significant savings in health care costs (not to mention carbon footprint).

I, for one, can certainly attest to the fact that the recent expansion of the Edmonton LRT system to my neighborhood has markedly increased my number of daily steps (while actually saving time (and money) on my daily commute).

Edmonton, Alberta

You can now also follow me and post your comments on Facebook

MacDonald JM, Stokes RJ, Cohen DA, Kofner A, & Ridgeway GK (2010). The effect of light rail transit on body mass index and physical activity. American journal of preventive medicine, 39 (2), 105-12 PMID: 20621257