Obesity and Your Commute

In the 1950s — before the invention of BMI (Body Mass Index) — Jean Mayer and others did a study of obesity at a factory in India. They divided workers by how much exertion their job required. Almost everyone, even desk clerks, was thin, with the exception of the most sedentary. It appeared that walking one hour per day (to and from work) was enough to get almost all the weight loss possible with exercise. Doing more had greatly diminished returns. A study with rats suggested the same thing. Bottom line: If you’re sedentary, you can easily lose weight via exercise, which can be as simple as walking to work. If not, it’s hard.

This month GOOD has a kind of update of that ancient study — a scatterplot, each point a different country, that shows percentage of obesity and fraction of commutes that are active (bike or walk). It supports what Mayer and others found — that how you get to work makes a difference. If you fitted a line to the data it would have a negative slope (more obesity, less active commutes). America has the most obesity and relatively few active commutes; Switzerland has the most active commutes and relatively little obesity. The graph also suggests that other factors matter a lot. Although Australia has less active commutes than America, it also has less obesity.

10 Replies to “Obesity and Your Commute”

  1. Correlation is not causation, of course.

    Are they obese because they’re less active, or are they less active because they are obese? (Just as Gary Taubes makes the case that you’re not fat because you eat too much; you eat too much because you’re fat.)

    I know that when my diet is good, I’m more active and more interested in being active. When in the past my diet has been bad, I’ve been much more likely to sit around and watch TV, or get in the car when I could walk or bike.

    Now if you live in L.A., and work 30 miles from where you live, walking isn’t an option of course…

  2. Uuh, this got nothing to do with this post, actually (just delete my comment after reading it, I found no other way to contact you).

    Look at the video embedded at this site:

    The old lady is talking about her fathers experiments, using foods to cure deseases, and funny thing, the one fat she explicitely mentions at the end of the (interesting part of the) video is flaxseed oil.

    I thoung this video about food and health might be of interest to you.

    Kind regards,

  3. I saw this a while back and almost sent it to you:


    It links to this (the real story):


    For me, exercise stimulates appetite and causes weight gain. I use a combination of SLD (nose clipped breakfasts and lunches) and exercise (biking to work) and consider the SLD to be for weight control and the exercise for general fitness (independent of weight).

  4. Two things:

    This moderate amount of exercise probably works best when it’s daily and consistent for really long time.

    TIME recently had a cover story featuring new research indicating that exercising is an ineffective way to lose weight. Although I bet these articles don’t really contradict. The kind of exercise that TIME featured is the intense focused fitness club kind, the kind that makes you hungry.

  5. I am 43 and used to run, run, run until my poor knees threw up their hands and said, “Enough!” Then I saw that Dean Ornish was asked whether running was better than walking and he said that walking was better because you can do it longer, it’s easier on the ol’ bag of bones, and the calories spent are equivalent in the long run. So I make sure that I walk for at least 60 minutes each day whether on a treadmill on a good incline or around my neighborhood. I’m not built like a marathoner but I never gained any weight and my knees have forgiven me and we are back on friendly terms. I can see how walking to work or school every day would make a big difference in the amount of obesity an area has. It’s impossible to commute on a bike or on foot in most of LA, for example, and people are larger there (or so it seems to me) that New Yorkers, who can do more walking.

  6. “Are they obese because they are less active or less active because they are obese.” An important feature of the Indian study was that the amount of activity you got depended on your job. Not on what you did in your free time. So exercise (actually, activity level) was a more potent and less-confounded force than most correlational studies of exercise these days. And people were unlikely to sort themselves into different occupations based on how much they weighed.

  7. Getting a desk job has been my downfall. All my previous jobs (natural foods store database manager/teacher) have been relatively aerobic in comparison. Since I started sitting in this cubicle more than three years ago, I’ve put on about 25 lbs. I blame my job.

    For me, weight loss is a lifestyle thing. It’s extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to make up the burnt calories you’d get from eight hours of constant movement vs. eight hours of sitting in a chair. I’m also not really the gym type, as it seems really unnatural to me, like I’m cramming what I should be doing into a small time period, but can’t, because I’m forced to sit here at my desk like veal. Moreover, the type of exercise is not the same (long endurance vs. short burst), but most importantly, intense workouts cause my appetite to rage.

    I suppose that’s the crux of it for weight loss purposes, and why gym plans tend to fail. Intense workouts cause intense hunger. Remaining active throughout the day doesn’t.

    My solution, which I took up about two months ago, has been to walk to work. While walking 5 miles twice a day (often in the rain) isn’t for everyone, I’ve found it to be the best alternative to having an active job that I can find. So far, I’ve lost about 8 lbs.

    That was a mouthful!

  8. In the 1950s you could not find fast food in India. Hardly even in the U.S.

    And, the vegetarian diet of most in India had to be a factor in keeping most people slim.

    Walking a mile works off about 100 calories. Not hard to keep slim eating rice and veggies.

    But, today…

    There are 540 calories in a Bic Mac. And, don”t forget the 790 calories in an Angus Bacon & Cheese.. You’ll want a large fries with that, right? Of course, for another 500 calories. And, let’s ease up on the drink with only a medium Coca-Cola® Classic for another 220 calories. (see http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/nutritionexchange/nutrition_facts.html)

    OK. That’s one Big Mac, large fries, medium Coke for 1260 calories.

    Gotta walk more than 12 miles to work that baby off.

    Our lifestyles have brought most Americans to the point of over indulging in high caloric foods and reducing our need to exert ourselves.

    No wonder we’re fat.

  9. Bob you hit the nail on the head, times have changed, portions have changed and simple solutions are failing to address complex problems. Simply walking a mile or two to and from work isn’t enough anymore, especially given the calorie rich foods we’re all eating and the increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Technology is making it too easy to do so much that requires so little physical effort. Until people realize they have to push themselves the extra proverbial miles, it’s not going to change.

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