How human-powered commuting is one of the best health hacks for women.

move Feb 14, 2020

Happy Valentines Day! Although little cinnamon hearts are tasty, I'm here to talk about your real heart - the one that needs care and attention all year long. Although regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health, not every woman can maintain an exercise schedule. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m also a big believer in getting small amounts of daily movement and breaking up sitting time. Breaking up sitting time and just moving more is a topic that is building a significant body of research to support the benefits of a less sedentary lifestyle.

A sedentary (or seated) lifestyle has it’s own health risks separate and apart from not getting regular physical activity, and health outcomes are worse even in those who do regular structured exercise but are seated for most of the rest of the day. According to the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network, “…physical inactivity is now the 2nd leading cause of death in the U.S. and the 4th worldwide. This represents about 5.3 million deaths per year, which is equivalent to the 5 million deaths attributed to tobacco usage.

Sedentary behaviour and cardiovascular disease (CVD) are linked in several studies. In one example, researchers reported that participants who spent ten or more hours in a car per week had an 82% higher risk of CVD mortality than those who spent fewer than four hours per week. This is an important consideration given that heart disease is the number one killer of women worldwide and risk goes up in the post-menopausal years.

One of the easiest ways to reduce sedentary time is by using what’s known as “active transportation.” Active transportation is just using your own power to get from place to place. By using modes of transportation other than our car, we get regular opportunities to be active, even if we can’t take the time to exercise. Active transport is a win-win for so many reasons; we lower our greenhouse gas emissions, are usually more socially engaged, active commuters have much lower rates of obesity, and commuting by our own power saves us money on gas and parking.

A few years ago, I worked on a research study looking at ways to help women over 55 become more active. One of our strategies was to give the women in the study bus tickets to take the bus at least once a week. We knew that the women would not only get the extra 10 minutes of activity on either end of their bus or subway trip, but we also were aware that people get small bouts of periodic vigorous exercise by taking transit. Don’t believe me? Sit at a bus stop long enough, and I guarantee you will see people running 😊.

Ideas for transport

What are some other ways to use active transportation besides the bus? Here are some things that you can try:

  • Park and walk: Parking your car farther away from your destination and using the added distance as an opportunity for a walk.
  • Cycling: Using your bike to get between short (or long if you’re up for it, long) distance commutes.
  • Skating: Some people (who are much more coordinated than me) use inline skates or rollerblades. Kudos to these brave souls.
  • Running: This is my commute of choice. With a light and non-chafing backpack, you can get almost anywhere on foot.
  • Winter commuting: Those living in snowier climates can use snowshoes or cross-country skis to get to their destination.

The best tips for active commuting

As a long-term active commuter, here are my top tips to remember if you decide to change up your transportation to a more self-powered mode:

1. Don’t forget the sunscreen: even during the winter, if you are outside more often because of commuting, you have more exposure to the sun’s rays. It’s probably best to find a sunscreen that you can wear year-round.

2. Think about investing in lightweight layers: Where I’m from in Vancouver, we are the masters of layering for the weather. Look for breathable fabrics that can be easily stowed in a lightweight backpack. Something like a packable puffer does a great job and can also be easily packed in a suitcase for travelling. Speaking of which…

3. Take your transport on the road: Think about staying in transit serviced or walkable neighbourhoods when you travel. You can read all about my tips for more active travel here

4. Invest in good shoes: I’m not going to lie. There are few things that I love more than a good pair of beautiful (and usually wholly impractical) shoes. These go in my backpack to be switched out at my destination, but on my commute, only high-quality walking or running shoes are welcome.

5. Track your stats: Adding up weekly steps or distance from commuting is a great way to stay motivated. You can use the little heart app on your iPhone or a more robust measurement app like Strava (while you’re there, send me a follow request, and we can keep each other motivated).

If you don’t do any regular exercise, active commuting is a low-pressure way to start. If you are regularly active, adding in some person-powered transportation makes your routine even better.

Are you an active commuter? Tell us your best tips over on the Age Sister private Facebook page.

See you on walking paths!

Your sister in health,

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