Commute Your Way to Better Health

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Want a daily workout without a trip to the gym? Ditch your car and commute to work by bike or foot. Besides the obvious fitness benefits, you’ll improve your mood, reduce pollution, and save a chunk of money, too.

Leah, an office worker in Seattle, started bicycling to work—six miles each way—about a year ago. “I arrive at my desk feeling happy. Because I’ve already conquered the challenge of biking to work, I’m up for whatever the day brings me rather than being in a crabby mood from sitting on my butt, fighting traffic,” she says, adding that she also saves about $75 a month in gas.

Across America, people are shifting away from car commuting. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of people who drove to work dropped in 99 of the nation’s 100 largest urbanized areas. Bike commuting rose 9 percent in 2012 alone, according to Census data.

The shift is not limited to predictable locales such as Brooklyn, Seattle, and Portland, either. Poughkeepsie, NY; Charlotte, NC; and Mission Viejo, CA, had 3 of the top 10 auto-commuting declines.

For the Health of It
Still, it’s easy to get sucked into a daily car commute – you can linger a few extra minutes in the morning, run an errand after work, and listen to your favorite radio station on the way. But there are serious health costs as well.

Research has shown that people who drive to work tend to gain more weight than those who don’t. A study of 4,300 commuters in Texas found that commuting leads to bigger waistlines – even if you exercise later. Each additional ten miles driven daily increases BMI (body mass index) by .17, they found. Driving to work is also stressful.

A more active commute is also more social. The only communication you’re likely to have with other drivers is transmitted via finger. But on foot or wheel, you’ll start to recognize fellow commuters and have chances to chat, at lights or just walking along.

walking-to-workGetting to Yes
Active commuting does take a bit more effort, and finding a way to motivate yourself is important. One method is to meet a friend along the way, someone who will be disappointed if they don’t see your smiling face. Or promise yourself a latte at that trendy coffee shop on the way to work. An insulated personal coffee cup fits nicely in your bike’s bottle cage.

So how exactly should you get to the office, if you don’t drive? Not everyone likes the idea of bicycling, but there are other options: you might be surprised to learn that people who walk to work far outnumber bike riders in every region of the U.S.

Whether you want to bike or walk depends on your personal taste as well as how far apart your home and job are. Biking is noticeably faster than the bus, while walking takes about twice as long. And of course, think how far is too far? You know what's best for yourself.

Practical Concerns
Once you’ve decided to have an active commute, you’ll want to gear up. Safety equipment is paramount, whether you’re on a bike or on foot.

Bikes should be equipped with front headlights and blinking red taillights. Use them – even if you think you’ll only be commuting during daylight hours. For bikers and walkers, a reflector vest or other reflective clothing is also a must. The more visible you are, the better. Walkers and bikers who don’t have a bell on their bicycle should also consider wearing a whistle.

Walk-commuters who listen to music should keep the volume at a sensible level so they can hear cars or other hazards. Bike commuters should not listen to music on headphones at all.bicycle bike to work

What about the weather? Here’s another surprise: most of the cities with the highest percentage of non-car commuters are in the northern third of the U.S., where the weather is worst. But if you bike or walk, you’ll want to have a backup plan – either mass transit, a friend who can carpool with you, or just taking your car on the worst days.

Luckily, weather-resistant gear has gotten much more practical – and fashionable – in the last few years. Nancy Botkin is a San Francisco computer consultant and a longtime volunteer with both the San Francisco Bike Coalition and the pedestrian advocacy group WalkSF for many years. She says, “It used to be hard to get the right bag to carry your stuff. Now they have modern ones which are hip, fashionable, and practical at the same time – cute backpack-style purses, and over-the-shoulder messenger bags that are waterproof and comfortable.”

For commuters who hoof it, she recommends modern “smart wool” socks that are not scratchy and wick the water away, and a good pair of shoes. “Find one of those stores where they wait on you, measure your foot , and watch you walk around. It’s worth it.” Since it’s often cooler during the morning commute than your ride home, she also recommends wearing layers of clothing – “you’ll be happy you have your cute bag with some extra room when you want to take a layer off.”

There are a lot of people working to encourage non-motorized commutes. The Alliance for Biking and Walking has 200 local member organizations, and this list of bicycle advocacy organizations is another excellent resource.

For additional encouragement, start with your HR department. Many employers offer incentives ranging from cash payments to prize drawings, extra daily parking passes, and guaranteed rides home if you get sick.

Super-long commutes will always be a challenge, though. In the long run, the healthiest strategy might be to move to a different job or city without an endless morning slog.

Mark Saltveit lives in Portland, where he writes about sports, Taoism, and palindromes.

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