Americans spend an average of 26.9 minutes a day commuting to their place of work, where they spend an average of 8.8 hours working. More than three-quarters of these commuters drive to work alone. This process plays a major role in Americans’ lives, and as a study released Wednesday in PLOS One reveals, it introduces a unique risk to our health.
In this new analysis, Adriana Dornelles, Ph.D., a statistician and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University, demonstrates that there’s a significant association between the types of food stores available on an individual’s commute route and their body mass index (BMI) — especially when it comes to commutes that pass by a fast-food restaurant. Dornelles tells Inverse that observing long lines at drive-throughs during her own commute motivated her to pursue this study.
This study is based on data collected from ACTION, a worksite intervention program focused on obesity management for elementary school personnel in the Greater New Orleans area. These data included 710 individuals’ heights and weights collected in 2006 and again in 2008, as well as their home and worksite addresses, and the number and type of food options available within 1 kilometer of these addresses.
Over the course of the entire evaluation period, the majority of the respondents (41 percent) were classified as obese and 29.3 percent as overweight, and only 15.1 percent were engaged in more than 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Their commutes ranged from 2.9 minutes to about 25 minutes.
Overall, Dornelles’ data revealed that different types of food stores available near residences and commute routes, but not near workplaces, had a significant association with BMI.
When it came to the food options near a person’s home, a greater number of full-service restaurants was linked to lower BMI while a greater number of supermarkets, grocery stores, and fast-food restaurants were linked to higher BMI.
Furthermore, Dornelles determined that each additional fast-food restaurant in the vicinity of one kilometer (or .62 miles) traveled contributed to a higher BMI. Previously, the CDC found that 36.6 percent of adults consume fast-food every day, and this research could help explain one reason why.
“Even though the results of the study show larger numbers of full-service restaurants than fast-food outlets [in proximity to a person’s home, commute, and workplace], it seems that people’s preferences rely on fast-food establishments because of the quick-easy-cheap appeal,” Dornelles says. “Having several fast-food restaurant choices along people’s commute is an invitation for an unbalanced and unhealthy meal.”
While Dornelles acknowledges that BMI measurements are criticized because they only consider an individual’s height and weight, she still thinks that it’s fair to say that people with higher BMI are more likely to be unhealthy. She notes that “it is well known that higher BMI leads to obesity and thus several other health problems.”
It’s also important to note that other socioeconomic factors influence an individual’s health — a person’s health could be less driven by their food options and commute, and more so by the reasons they have those food options and that commute. This study found that higher median income was negatively associated with BMI: An increase of $1,000 decreased, on average, a school employee’s BMI by 0.07.
This study joins others in linking commuting time to weight gain and ill health.
A 2012 study on 4,297 Texans showed that people with commutes longer than 20 miles had greater rates of high blood pressure and high blood sugar than those with commutes of 0 to 5 miles. A 2009 analysis that incorporated data from the American Time Use Survey showed that each minute spent commuting is associated with a 0.0257-minute exercise time reduction, a 0.0387-minute food preparation time reduction, and a 0.2205-minute sleep time reduction. These reductions may sound small, but they added up, leading to an increased likelihood of eating out and substituting exercise time with something else.
Additionally, a 2006 study in Health & Place determined that the highest mean levels of obesity in California are associated with the highest numbers of vehicle miles traveled. This led the authors to conclude that “an urban design characterized by over-dependence on motorized transportation may be related to adverse health effects.”
Dornelles hopes this new study will help people become “more aware of the vast availability of unhealthy food options.” But that may prove to be tricky as long as fast-food restaurants remain the concentrated option in areas with higher vehicle traffic. For its part, fast food has only become less healthy and more available over time — and even restaurants with reputations for carrying healthier options, like Panera and Chipotle, are beginning to embrace the drive-through. That addition is expected to give these places a boost in sales; whether or not it will boost Americans’ health remains to be seen.
Background: Although the relationship between residential food environments and health outcomes have been extensively studied, the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and multiple food environments have not been fully explored. We examined the relationship between characteristics of three distinct food environments and BMI among elementary school employees in the metropolitan area of New Orleans, LA. We assessed the food environments around the residential and worksite neighborhoods and the commuting corridors.
Conclusions: The current study was the first to examine the relationship between BMI and food environments around residential neighborhoods, work neighborhoods, and the commuting corridor. Significant results were found between BMI and the availability of food stores around residential neighborhoods and the commuting corridor, adjusted for individual-level factors. This study expands the analysis beyond residential neighborhoods, illustrating the importance of multiple environmental factors in relation to BMI.