How have cars contributed to the obesity crisis?
Published 20 February 2022 by Quitterie d’Harcourt
During my time studying about the built environment, I was able to explore how the obesity epidemic, that has gripped many western countries, may be traced back to the widespread use of cars, and poor urban design. Obesity has risen to become the most serious public health issue confronting the United States and several other developed and developing nations, making it an important topic to discuss.
In historical times, being overweight was a sign of good health and affluence. To be overweight or obese was therefore long considered a symbol of prosperity, but today, these traits have evolved to reflect poor health and deprivation (Lee, McAlexander & Banda, 2011, pp.4). Death today happens much later in life than it did before. As a result, people die “from chronic health-compromising conditions that slowly reduce the capacity of one or more of their organs”, to which obesity, sedentary lifestyle and eating patterns all play a significant role (Lee, McAlexander & Banda, 2011, pp.7) (CDC, 2008).
When thinking about how to resolve the obesity crisis, relying on elements such as genetic, behavioural, and emotional causes of obesity, has its limits. It is important to broaden one’s understanding of what influences obesity, for example, one should consider the urban fabric, public transit, and people’s access to food. To alter obesogenic environments and ensure long-term health for everyone, many variables need to be properly addressed.
So, what do cars have to do with obesogenic environments?
With regards to cars, researchers have found a link between the frequency of driving and the rates of obesity, indicating that private vehicles play a role in the obesity crisis. According to studies, every added 30 minutes spent in a vehicle per day is linked to a 3 percent rise in the probability of becoming obese (Frank, Andresen & Schmid, 2004). Additionally, in the USA, around 28 percent of all automotive journeys are less than a kilometre and a half, a length that would generally take between fifteen to thirty minutes by foot for the average person (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2002). Frequent commuting by car also has various added consequences on one’s health: the amount of time invested to drive affects the amount of time available for physical exercise (Lee, McAlexander & Banda, 2011). Finally, seeing how cars have invaded our cities, increased driving adds to less suitable surroundings for people who would otherwise prefer active travel due to pollutants and vehicular incidents.
So how can we urge people to become less reliant on their cars?
Creating a walkable neighbourhood not only encourages people to engage in physical exercise; it also helps to reduce pollution by lowering the numbers of vehicles in the area. Incentives to move actively and improved public transport are therefore needed to improve people’s health and activity levels. In addition to this, public spaces need to be altered to provide a secure and pleasant atmosphere while people commute actively.
While many things need to be addressed to combat the obesity crisis in both young and older communities, active travel shows real potential to help initiate a rise in physical activity among people of all ages. It therefore needs to be carefully considered through the design of our cities and communities.
– Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (2002). National household travel survey 2001-2002. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Available at: www.bts.gov/programs/national_house-hold_travel_survey (accessed 17th February 2022).
– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2008) WISQAR Leading Causes of Death Reports, 1999-2005. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/LeadingCauses.html (accessed 17th February 2022).
– Frank, D., Andresen, M.A., & Schmid, T.L. (2004). Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(2), pp.87–96.
– Lee, K. McAlexander & J. Banda (2011) Reversing the Obesogenic Environment. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL. First Edition