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Weekly Reading: How Good Is Biking and Walking for Your Health?

owen_bike The connection between travel choice and health outcomes keeps getting stronger and stronger. Over at Fast Company, the blaring headline "Your Neighborhood is Why You're Fat" discusses obesogenic environments as those that are "promoting gaining weight and one that is not conducive to weight loss." But, citing a study from Australia, they also note that the reverse is true:

If people have options to shop and exercise locally, they will take them, and health can improve. A recent study from Western Australia, which surveyed 1,400 people before and after relocating to new developments, found that nearby stores increased walking by an average of 5 to 6 minutes per week, and that access to a park or beach increased physical activity by 21 minutes a week.

It's the essential Field of Dreams model: "If you build it, they will come."

As Grist reports, research from another set of Australian researches goes a step further. Their finding suggest that active transportation may be the best way to promote healthy outcomes, in part because it displaces another sedentary activity: driving.

The four-year study of 822 adults found that found that people commuting to work by car gained more weight on average, even if they engaged in regular exercise, than people who did not commute by car.

It should be no surprise, then, that the researchers "recommend creating more opportunities for everyone to walk or bike to work."

We would recommend also expanding walking and biking to school, stores, parks, etc, especially since demographers recently re-crunched the numbers and found that 69% (69%!!!) of all car trips are two miles or less.

(Another interesting post from Grist documents a study that points out that people eat less if they know how long they'll need to walk to burn off those calories.)

Of course active transportation isn't just good for our bodies, it's also great exercise for our minds. Over at The Smart Set, Wayne Curtis draws on neurological science, politics and mapping science to argue that urban dwellers have a more nuanced "network map" that allowed them a more nuanced world-view and finer-attuned problem solving skills. Stepping into the world of politics, he notes:

Far be it from me to say that if we all got out and walked more, we’d develop more comprehensive maps of where we lived. And maybe we’d open up some neural networks that would allow us to create more varied and subtle solutions to problems, which would steer us away from blaming the wrong people. Maybe Congress would run more smoothly, and the rancor of our political debates would diminish.

For kids, too, walkability an important component of physical and psychological development. Adding to the literature is an impressive set of data out of DC, thatcorrelates walkability with school performance.

The New York Times reports that this brain-benefit is particularly pronounced when we walk in parks. Being surrounded by nature rests and restores our minds from "brain fatigue." So does your brain shut off in parks? Do we zone out? Far from it, say the researchers:

“Natural environments still engage” the brain, [Jenny Roe] said, but the attention demanded “is effortless. It’s called involuntary attention in psychology. It holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection,” and providing a palliative to the nonstop attentional demands of typical, city streets.