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The Easiest Way to Get Fit? 'Incidental Movement' is Key

I've written before about how I believe that selling my car was one of the most beneficial things I have ever done for my health and well being—and I stand by that claim, if for no other reason than for all the incidental movement that is now built into my life. 

By
Brock Armstrong ,
May 8, 2018
Episode #388

Photo of a woman being active on the subway

Being a society where exercise is simply the 30-90 minutes per day that we set aside for formal movement isn’t working for us. We need to think outside the gym

Most of us live in a society where our life is predominantly sedentary. A society where exercise is simply the 30 to 90 minutes per day that we set aside for some formal, predetermined amount of movement. Well, more and more research is showing that this approach isn’t working for us. We need to think outside the gym. And what better place to start than with the daily commute?

From a financial standpoint, having gotten rid of my car means that I don’t have any car payments, no insurance companies are gouging me for more and more money, I am only peripherally aware of the rising gas prices, and I never have to pay for parking.

From a wellness standpoint, I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into when I handed over the keys to my 2008 VW Golf to the buyer from Calgary, Alberta, who got it for a song. At that time, selling my car was simply more convenient than continuing to own it.

I was moving across the country to start a new job and although I had visited Toronto many times, I wasn’t entirely sure that I could afford to park, let alone drive, in that city. I was OK with that idea since selling the car would eliminate some rather oppressive monthly payments and I rather liked the idea of bucking the system and becoming even more of a pedal-estrian than I already was.

Now stick with me here, this isn’t going to turn into some hippie tirade about how we are all killing the planet (even if we are). I will explain how this actually applies to being fit and healthy in a minute.

When You Own a Car

For the majority of my adult life (or at least since I was 16 years old) I have possessed a car. As you may or may not know, there is a strange thing that happens to your mindset when you own a car. The question of “How will I get from point A to point B?” is always answered by default: I will drive. Of course! Because I have a car. Not to mention that at some points in my life, it was a pretty cool car with a rather decent stereo system and a veritable mountain of cassette tapes.

Now, if the distance between point A and point B was extremely short, I would likely walk or ride my bike—I mean, I am not a monster—but for any distance or duration over a few minutes, I would simply get in the car, crank the tunes, and drive. This was doubly likely in the cold Albertan winter months.

When You Don’t Own a Car

When you take the “I own a car” element out of the “how will I get there” equation, you are forced to get creative. Will I walk? Will I ride my bike? Take the bus? Take the subway? Walk there and run back? Use a car share? Call a friend? An Uber? Mom?

Even using a car share program involves walking to the parking spot where the car is kept and then walking home again after you drop the car off.

The first beneficial thing about many of these alternative modes of getting around is that they involve physically moving your body parts. Yes, even taking the bus or the subway involves walking, standing, and balancing (using proprioception) that we don’t use when we are sitting on our butts in a car seat. Even using one of the car share programs involves walking to the parking spot where the car is kept and then walking home again after you drop the car off.

The second beneficial thing with these carless alternatives is that they have many deep health benefits like lowering stress levels, raising your mood, and perhaps even helping you get better sleep. But more on that later.

According to a report from the United States Census Bureau, the average American’s commute is 25.5 minutes each way. That’s about 51 minutes per day or about 204 hours per year spent commuting. Just to put that in perspective, researchers recently found that most adults only do 17 minutes of fitness activities per day or about 103.4 hours per year. So we are only exercising for approximately half the amount of time that we are spending commuting. Ugh!

Happy Commuters Are Active Commuters

According to a study called the Happy Commuter done by the researchers at McGill University, all commuters are more likely to feel happier when they are walking to work rather than when they take any other form of transportation. It’s been a while since I said this but once again, it’s good old walking for the win!

The team of researchers surveyed over 3,300 students, staff, and faculty at McGill University about their daily travel times, their comfort, safety, cost, wait times, and even their level of street harassment. Their results lined up like this:

  • Participants were happiest when they walked, rode the train, or cycled to work—in that order.
  • Participants reported lower satisfaction when they traveled by car, subway, or bus—in that order.

When the researchers dug deeper into the factors that affect commuter satisfaction, they discovered that the duration of the travel mattered greatly. Unsurprisingly, people with longer commutes felt less happy than those with shorter ones. But—and this is cool—that same factor of travel time mattered less to walkers, bikers, and bus riders. The results showed that an extra ten minutes lowered their satisfaction by only half as much as it did for those who drive, ride the train, or take the subway.

Sure, you need to be more organized and plan ahead so you arrive on time (although, I would argue that you need to do that just as much when you drive because, let’s face it, traffic sucks) but in general I would much rather feel the wind in my hair on my bike than be breathing the recycled and overly conditioned air inside a restrictive car.

I would also rather let a well-trained bus driver do all the work while I stand, read a book, or listen to a podcast instead of sitting there reading the infuriating political bumper stickers on the cars in front of me.

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