Does active transportation add to overall physical activity, or substitute for other exercise?

By Rayla Bellis

New research in the Journal of Transport and Health investigates whether people who spend more time walking and biking daily to work and errands in the U.S. and the Netherlands spend less time exercising overall. The study findings indicate the opposite—the likelihood of recreational exercise is actually higher, rather than lower, for people participating in active travel. In other words, active travel adds to overall daily physical activity, rather than substituting for other exercise.

The researchers, from Toole Design Group, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and Clemson University, used data from the American Time Use Survey and the equivalent Dutch Tijdsbestedingsonderzoek to evaluate the correlation. Both datasets showed the same results: active transportation is associated with a higher probability of exercising recreationally.

These findings could have noteworthy implications for bringing community health considerations into transportation project prioritization and performance measurement. While many decision makers are seeking to understand and quantify how their investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure will contribute to public health outcomes like obesity and cardiovascular problems, there are still a number of gaps in our knowledge. In theory, people who walk or bike to work regularly might forego time they would otherwise spend at the gym, potentially negating the health benefits of investing to improve walking and biking options, but this research suggests that is not the case. As the study authors note, future research should attempt to quantify the health benefits that people who engage in active travel are likely to enjoy beyond what they would otherwise experience.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.