TUESDAY, June 29, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- When cities create or improve light rail public transit systems, citizens' waistlines may benefit, a new study shows.
By getting people out of their cars and having them walk to and from transit stations, calories get burned, the researchers noted.
"Fixed rail transit systems provide a moderate public health benefit to users by creating more opportunity for walking in one's daily commute," said study co-author Robert Stokes, coordinator of the Urban Environmental Studies Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "This benefit, when aggregated to society, is not inconsequential and should become part of any discussion on the costs and benefits of transit and land use planning and policy."
The study was funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Environmental Health Science and is published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
For the study, Stokes's team surveyed about 500 people in Charlotte, N.C., before and after the city completed its light rail transit (LRT) system.
Questions included the level of physical activity, weight and height, perception of the neighborhood environment and public transit use before and after the LRT, plans to use LRT and actual LRT use.
The researchers found that, on average, a typical 5-foot-5 commuter who used the system to get to and from work lost an average of 6.45 pounds over 12 to 18 months. Moreover, people who used the LRT had an 81 percent lower risk of becoming obese than people who did not use the system.
"Providing smartly planned public transit options for fast-growing, sprawling metros can reduce the prevalence of obesity, which has been strongly related to time spent in one's automobile," Stokes said. "Transit planners need to work with municipal planners and public safety agencies to create safe and attractive transit environments that maximize use of LRT lines," he added.
Right now, there are 32 LRT systems operating in major U.S. metropolitan areas, generating more than 200 million passenger trips a year, Stokes said.
Scott C. Brown, a research assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Center for Family Studies, agreed that "mass transit can create incentives for more people to engage in physical activity."
Brown noted that studies have shown that time spent in cars is related to a greater prevalence of obesity.
"Other studies have found the availability of public transit is related to increased physical activity," he said.
For more information on obesity, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.