The Positive Benefits of Human Powered Travel

It's not just Portlandia anymore. A giant study involving 22,000 people looked at the impact of walking and bike commuting on health and exercise habits.

When I was a kid my dad always used to park as far from the entrance of any building as possible. He’d say it was to pick a good spot with his truck in the shade, not near any other cars. The real reason was the same reason he always sat with his back to a wall. He was just an old-school guy who always did the same things, but it turns out maybe it improved his fitness, too.

It was around the 1990s when they (the proverbial “they”) began pushing active travel as a means of getting around. By active travel I mean getting to where you’re going in a way that takes physical effort – in particular, walking and biking. The recommendation was to walk to work or other places you needed to go, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or park as far away from the entrance as possible. I figured my dad was just ahead of the curve on that societal trend. Well now, a few decades later, a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity has proven it on large scale.

The study piggybacked onto a survey conducted in Wales. A large infrastructure designed to allow for recreation and alternative means of travel was built in the Cardiff area. As a follow up the project surveyed the people in the area to see how the changes impacted them – over 22,000 people responded. The researchers took these results to find out if the changes to human-powered travel had any advantages or disadvantages to the people involved.

The effect on active travel was pretty evenly distributed. A third of the respondents increased their active travel, another third decreased active travel, and the final third didn’t change at all. In examining the results, researchers found changes to travel had no impact on recreational fitness endeavors, but were positively correlated with total activity.

So what does that jargon mean exactly? Typically when we spend more time traveling we would expect less time for other things, like hitting the gym or the Xbox Kinect for those of us lazy exercisers. However, apparently that isn’t the case. There was no major change for any of the groups in recreational fitness, meaning it didn’t work the other way around either. The group who spent less time walking to work after the construction didn’t use it for exercise. Even better, the increase in walking or biking did, perhaps obviously, increase the total time people spent being active each day.

From a public health perspective, this is a big deal. A phrase I coined a few years ago is apt here: “Convenience isn’t the mother of fitness.” From an individual perspective this is essentially the kick in the pants some people might need to stop making excuses. Leave the car at home and go on foot or by bike whenever possible. Not only will your health improve but now science says no more excuses about how it will mess with your results in the gym. Get out there!


1. Shannon Sahlqvist, et. al., “Change in active travel and changes in recreational and total physical activity in adults: longitudinal findings from the iConnect study,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 10:28 (2013)

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