Longer commutes could mean higher obesity rates, analysis show
When the L-train shutdown was announced, public health researchers published an extensive Health Impact Assessment report detailing a relationship between longer commute times and worse health outcomes.
Even though the shutdown was modified, reduced to a more benevolent slowdown, data from the Census Bureau shows that pockets of Brooklyn do face the kind of commutes concerning to health researchers.
That data, combined with the New York City Department of Health’s Community Health Survey, reveals an existing relationship between commute times and obesity.
An analysis by Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council, showed that where more adults spend upward of an hour commuting, more adults are obese.
Although the factors don’t necessarily cause one another, the relationship between commute time and obesity highlights the public health importance of access to efficient transportation. While obesity is not an exact indicator of someone’s health and fitness, it is linked to diabetes and heart conditions.
In Coney Island and Brighton Beach, about four in every 10 people spend more than one hour commuting each way. It’s also estimated that more than one in every three people are obese, per a New York City Department of Health phone survey.
Compare that to Battery Park City and Tribeca, where it’s estimated that fewer than one in every 10 residents are commuting more than an hour each way, and less than one in 10 residents are obese.
Claudia Matanza commutes from Brighton Beach to Downtown Brooklyn to work at Chipotle, which takes between 40 minutes to an hour depending on the state of the Q train. She says her commute sucks up her free time.
“Going back and forth on the train takes a lot of time,” she says. “And I already work a lot. When I get home, I just wanna relax.”
The data shows that Matanza is not alone: As the proportion increases of workers commuting more than an hour one way, so does the rate of people who report not having exercised in the past 30 days.
“Sometimes I can drive my mom’s car, but that’s only a little faster,” Matanza says. “I wish I could work closer so I have more time for myself, definitely.”
Christine Hoehner, a former public health researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed that inability to exercise was likely one of the reasons longer commute times led to health issues.
Hoehner authored a 2012 study that found greater commuting distances are associated with exercising less and weighing more. She says the study provides insights into the links between longer commutes and “cardiovascular mortality.”
“Our commute is part of our daily lives, and people seeing that it could affect their health really struck a chord with the public,” says Hoehner.
There is a chance that both commute times and obesity are related to income, however, when comparing two communities with similar mean household incomes, as done below, an increase in the percentage of people commuting over 60 minutes one way is still associated with an increase in obesity rate.
James Raskin makes an hourlong commute from Bushwick to Resorts World Casino in Queens where he works as a security guard. He says the time spent on the train is a nuisance, especially now that the L train has become less reliable.
“I’m to the point where I don’t even use the L,” says Raskin. “Which means my commute is that much longer.
“I stopped cooking as much, for sure, while the L has been so slow, “says Raskin. “Sitting on the train for two hours a day sucks, but it’s part of the job.”
Raskin’s commute has been elongated by delays. But for Brooklynites farther from their workplace, an hourlong commute is a daily reality.
There are ways to reduce the negative health outcomes associated with longer commutes, according to researchers. In the health impact assessment report published about the L-train shutdown, the authors recommended that the city implement local or mobile food markets, place healthy meal options near transit hubs and collaborate with food subscription services. However, there is yet to be a city-led effort to address health disparities in areas with historically longer commutes.
As New York’s population continues to grow — and commutes become longer for those who can’t afford to live close to their workplaces — the physical health of entire neighborhoods could be at stake.
This report is a Brooklyn Eagle collaboration with Measure of America, an initiative of the Social Science Research Council to bring a data-driven approach to well-being and opportunity in the U.S.
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