You’d Never Guess The Unexpected Factor ‘Driving’ Weight Gain

A McDonald's employee hands a tray of drinks to a drive-thru customer likely leading to weight gain

A McDonald’s employee hands a tray of drinks to a drive-thru customer, likely leading to weight gain | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Cheesus, take the wheel? You may not realize it, but driving is basically like being in suspended animation — physically speaking. We’re not moving, because we can’t, and many people end up snacking or drinking sugary sodas or coffee along the ride. If you have a long commute, that can actually end up being pretty damaging over the long-term, and according to a new study, can result in some pretty serious weight gain.

The study, which was published in the medical journal Preventive Medicine, was conducted by researchers from Australian Catholic University, led by Professor Takemi Sugiyama from the school’s Institute of Health and Ageing. All told, the research team looked at 2,800 adults from another project — the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study — and measured their driving habits against some common indicators of overall fitness. These include things like body mass index readings and waist measurements.

The findings? Those who spent more than an hour per day in the car were, on average, fatter than those who spent less. In other words, if you have a long commute, or just end up spending a lot of time in the car for whatever reason, you’re setting yourself up for some serious weight gain.

Weight gain among drivers

Weight gain results in a bigger belly

Weight gain results in a bigger belly | iStock

As for the differences between those who spent more than an hour in the car each day, and those who spent less time, the researchers said that the averages were a 0.8 greater BMI and 1.5 additional centimeters in waist circumference.

In the author’s words, “Compared to spending 15 min/day or less in cars, spending more than 1 h/day in cars was significantly associated with higher BMI, waist circumference, fasting plasma glucose, and clustered cardio-metabolic risk, after adjusting for socio-demographic attributes and potentially relevant behaviors including leisure-time physical activity and dietary intake. Gender interactions showed car time to be associated with higher BMI in men only.”

And, in conclusion, “prolonged time spent sitting in cars, in particular over 1 h/day, was associated with higher total and central adiposity and a more-adverse cardio-metabolic risk profile. Further studies, ideally using objective measures of sitting time in cars and prospective designs, are needed to confirm the impact of car use on cardio-metabolic disease risk.”

As mentioned, the prolonged period of time in the car is basically time in which we’re completely sedentary. We don’t get up, walk around, or burn many (if any) calories. It’s why we start to go stir-crazy while sitting in traffic — you’re trapped. And it’s during these times that we get bored, and start to snack on salty or sugary foods, or even get sleepy and reach for energy drinks, sodas, or sugar-heavy coffee and tea.

Our commutes are killing us.

Traffic in Los Angeles

Traffic in Los Angeles | Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

So, what can we do about it? The obvious answer is to change your commute — but for many reasons, a lot of people can’t do that. Walking or bicycling to work just isn’t really an option, especially for many Americans, who live long distances from their place of employment, often due to varying costs of living and other factors.

Not to mention that millions of people actually drive for a living, working as couriers, delivery drivers, etc.

When we actually look at the numbers, it’s pretty astounding how much time, on average, Americans spend in transit. According to a survey from AAA, the typical American drives more than 29 miles per day, spending an average duration of 46 minutes behind the wheel. Now, if your job actually requires driving? Then you’re spending some serious hours getting very little exercise. That’s something to worry about.

But even if you’re just commuting, an average of 46 minutes per day behind the wheel means that a good percentage of the population is dangerously close to the hour mark the Australian researchers pegged in their study. Which makes it all the more important that we get exercise and physical activity in when we have the time.

If possible, see what you can do about switching up your commute, or even lobby for telecommuting, if your role allows for it. Or, look for ways to walk or bike to work, if you live within striking distance. It’s clear that the time we’re spending in our cars is detrimental to our health, and anything you can do to change things up is going to be a positive step.

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