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Since it’s February and February is American Heart Month, we’re going to use this opportunity to talk about heart disease and its relationship with how we get around. According to the Centers for Disease Control, every year, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack, about 600,000 people die from heart disease in the United States each year (that’s 1 out of every 4 deaths!), and heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, costs the United States $312.6 billion each year in health care services, medications, and lost productivity.

So what does that have to do with transportation? More than you might guess.  Studies show that in addition to being a real downer, long commutes are related to bad health. But studies abound showing that car commuting also correlates with higher blood pressure, bigger waistlines, and unhealthy hearts:

  • One recent study published last year found that long commutes are correlated with higher blood pressure and bigger waistlines. And those things are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. The study found that men who spent more than 10 hours a week riding in a car were significantly more likely to have died from cardiovascular disease than those who spent less time sitting still.
  • Another recent study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, found that people with longer commutes tended to be less physically active, even after the researchers took into account extenuating factors such as age, race, educational levels and family size. Seventy-six percent of people who worked within five miles of their home averaged at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day (as federal health officials recommend), compared to just 70% of those whose commute exceeded 30 miles round-trip. In addition, people in the 30-mile-and-up club were more likely to be obese and to have an unhealthy waist size. Excess belly fat is a known risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and strokes. Blood pressure appeared to be even more sensitive to commuting distance. Even people whose commute was just 20 miles round-trip had an increased risk of elevated blood pressure.
  • Brown University researchers found that spending an hour every day commuting (a half-hour commute there and back) means that the average person gets 30.6 percent less time for sleep, 16.1 percent less time for exercise, 5.8 percent less time to eat with the family and 4.1 percent less time to prepare food. Overall, “spending an additional 60 min daily commuting above average is associated with a 6 percent decrease in aggregate health-related activities and spending an additional 120 min is associated with a 12 percent decrease,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Urban Health study.
  • Finally, a German study published last year found that being stuck in traffic triples your heart attack risk.

The commute component of all these studies adds evidence that routine commuting can add to the unhealthy effects of our transportation system and choices. Want to change the way you get around, but don’t know where to start? GMTMA is here to help. Check out our Employer Services to learn about how we can help employers encourage their workforce to leave the cars at home; learn about our programs for commuters, including carpooling and vanpooling; check out our Community Programs and learn about how GMTMA can help your community implement a wide variety of policies and programs that improve safety, mobility and sustainability; get involved in our Safe Routes to School program, which helps kids and their parents get to school safely without driving; learn how to ride your bike more; or figure out ways to ride the bus or train more often. Contact GMTMA — we can help you, your office, or your school figure out alternative ways to get around.

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