KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jim Richards is no kid, but he loves to ride his bike. At 51, he has become a cycling commuter, pedaling 11 miles from his home in the suburbs to his job in downtown Knoxville.
"It really doesn't take that much longer" than driving, he insists.
And he gets 40 minutes of exercise twice a day without going to the gym, which he attributes to a 20-pound weight loss.
New research illustrates the health benefits of regular biking, walking or taking public transportation to work, school or shopping. Researchers found a link between "active transportation" and less obesity in 17 industrialized countries across Europe, North America and Australia.
"Countries with the highest levels of active transportation generally had the lowest obesity rates," authors David Bassett of the University of Tennessee and John Pucher of Rutgers University conclude.
Americans, with the highest rate of obesity, were the least likely to walk, cycle or take mass transit, according to the study in a recent issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. The study relied on each country's own travel and health data.
Only 12 percent use active transportation in the United States — 9 percent walk, 1 percent ride a bike and 2 percent take a bus or train — while a quarter to a third are obese, the study said.
By comparison, 67 percent of commuters in Latvia, 62 percent in Sweden and 52 percent in the Netherlands either walk, bike or use mass transit. Latvia's obesity rate is 14 percent, the Netherlands' is 11 percent and Sweden's is 9 percent.
A similar pattern was found in Canada (19 percent active transportation, 23 percent obese) and Australia (14 percent active transportation, 21 percent obese).
Overall, Bassett said, "Europeans walk three times as far and cycle five times as far as Americans."
How to get more walking?
The authors say it's more than lifestyle choices that lead Americans to use their cars more. Europe's compact, dense layout and infrastructure are more conducive to getting around without a car.
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Europeans on average walk 237 miles and cycle 116 miles per year; U.S. residents walk 87 miles and bike 24 miles. Bassett and Pucher calculated that translates into burning off 5 to 9 pounds of fat annually for Europeans compared to only 2 pounds for Americans.
While the analysis doesn't prove that transportation keeps obesity levels down "they make an excellent case," said Susan Handy, who heads the Sustainable Transportation Center at the University of California at Davis.
"The question, then, is what do we do?" said Handy, who was not involved in the study. "How do we get more people walking and bicycling in the U.S.?"
Anne Lusk, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, said the study's results make sense.
"What I found most exciting about this excellent research is the applicability," she said. "The issue then becomes should we improve our transit, walking or bicycling opportunities simultaneously or should we focus on one of the three?"
Lusk said her first choice is bicycles — and not just because of global warming, fluctuating gas prices or the economic downturn. When Dutch researchers asked people to match emotions with various forms of travel, she said, "The greatest emotion was joy for bicycling."
Richards rekindled his love affair with a two-wheeler a few years ago while visiting bike-friendly Sweden.
Back home, he has a couple of things going for him. Richards lives in a medium-size Southern city where police officers can be found patroling on bikes and the mayor sometimes cycles to city hall.
The car is still king here, like most places in the United States, but Knoxville has developed a 41-mile greenway system that keeps Richards mostly on paved trails and off city streets.
He also works for an environmentally conscious employer. The country store-themed Mast General Stores of Valle Crucis, N.C., pays Richards and his co-workers $4 a day to ride, walk or catch a bus rather drive than their car.
After a year, his annual checkup shows the results: his heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol all are down.
"I just love riding," he said. "It's like a double-shot of caffeine in the morning."
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