It’s not surprising that commuting to work on foot or by bike is likely to make someone more fit. But the same is also true for those who ride public transit, according to a new study. People who don’t drive to work–no matter how much or how little they otherwise exercise–are likely to weigh an average of five to seven pounds less than someone in a car.
“Public transport use involves a greater level of incidental physical activity than we commonly assume,” says lead author Ellen Flint, a research fellow at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Walking from your home to the bus stop, standing in a busy train carriage, sprinting up the station stairs to change platforms; a public transport journey usually involves more exertion than traveling by car.”
Leaving the car at home might even work better than a typical diet or exercise plan. Though the researchers didn’t directly compare the two, alternative commutes have a greater effect on weight, at the population level, than standard individual weight-loss plans.
In the study, which looked at 40,000 households throughout the country, men weighed around seven pounds less when they used public or active transit, and women weighed about 5.5 pounds less.
The researchers controlled for a range of other reasons that someone might weigh more or less–like diet, activity at work, fitness routines, and age.
“From the analysis we performed, it is not possible to ‘explain away’ our findings by saying that active commuters are more likely to be young, urban, wealthy, for example, and therefore thinner for these reasons rather than how they commute,” says Flint.
As policymakers in the U.K. look for solutions to growing obesity and inactivity levels–which are approaching the high levels also seen in the U.S.–the researchers hope that the government starts to invest more in promoting alternative transportation.
“Obesity prevention is a major public health challenge,” says Flint. “Given that the majority of commuters in the U.K. use private transport as their main mode, there are potentially large population-level health gains to be made by shifting to more active modes of travel.”