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Is Your Car Making You Fat?

More Drive Time May Mean More Unwanted Pounds
  -- By Rebecca Pratt, Staff Writer

You needed a few things from the store, so you drove a couple blocks to pick them up. Then you were hungry (but in a hurry), so you pulled through Big Burger. And now, ready for your requisite workout at the gym, you’re repeatedly rounding the parking lot trying to find a spot near the door.

What’s wrong with this picture? More to the point, who’s steering your life, you or your car?

Don’t get me wrong. I would never put down the love affair between Americans and their cars. The car is a wonderful invention, giving us power, convenience, and connection to family and friends that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Whereas our pioneer ancestors were able to cover only 15-20 miles on a good day in a covered wagon, we master much greater distances on a daily basis, for work and play. We have wider horizons—both mentally and physically—because Henry Ford made the automobile available en masse.

On the other hand, we sometimes seem trapped in our cars, as if appearing in some bizarre horror movie. We don’t walk anywhere, except to get from the front door of our homes to the front seat of our SUVs, and we really seem to believe that a few raindrops might melt us. Despite the fact that half of all trips in urban areas are three miles or less (41 percent are two miles or less)—and that several recent polls have found that a majority of Americans would like to bike and walk more—statistics show our rate of walking has dropped by 42 percent over the past 20 years! With the number of overweight Americans increasing by 40 percent over that same time period, you don’t have to do sophisticated calculations to guess that there might be some link.

The health benefits of even moderate walking and biking (20-30 minutes, four times per week) are well documented and astonishing. Both reduce stress, as well as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, and breast or colon cancer. Some experts say walking relieves constipation and cures impotence. At the very least, both make you stronger, better looking and—best of all—more aerobically fit.

So why are we so resistant to putting our knowledge to work? Why do we always default to driving when we could walk or bike? And even more importantly, how do we change this mindset?

Here are some observations that might help:

Walking and biking really are fun!
As with many things that are good for us, walking and biking are also enjoyable—but we have to get there to be reminded of that. I routinely "make" my nephews and niece go walking with me and just as routinely have to stifle a few chuckles when they complain bitterly about going and then wind up having a wonderful time-- racing each other, poking in the creek, enjoying conversations, savoring the sunshine and fresh air. In fact, some of their best memories are of such adventures—like the time my niece and I made her birthday dinner into an event with a brisk moonlight walk to and from the designated restaurant. (Her parents, she confided emphatically, would never do such an unconventional thing!)

No matter where you live, you can park the car sometimes.
Although I’m lucky enough to now live in a tree-lined historic neighborhood where it’s easy to walk or bike, I can’t think of anywhere I’ve ever lived that there weren’t some opportunities to do both. The only real variable in the equation was me, and whether I was willing. Working at fitness requires a conscious effort— it’s so tempting to always hop in our cars. Get in the habit of asking yourself, on a regular basis, whether you can make a short trip without taking along several tons of steel.

Minor changes can have major impact.
Years ago a close relative, sporting the typical weight gain of a woman in her 50s who’d raised four kids, began a daily program of walking. In the midst of divorce after 30 years of marriage, and working and attending college as well, she found the regimen a great stress reliever as well as a physical pick-up. Although she spent only about 45 minutes each day covering just three miles, the results were long term and dramatic. Neighbors later marveled that her excess weight had "just melted off." What they didn’t realize, of course, was that she had faithfully walked five to six days a week, rain or shine, while they were ensconced in their cars or homes—and that it was her consistency that had conquered.

Friends don’t let friends drive…when walking or biking is feasible.
One of the things that most helps me leave my car behind is having a buddy in my neighborhood. Even when we’re eating high-calorie fare—and hey, she likes pizza just as much as I do—we don’t feel quite so bad about it if we hike to dinner and back. Just knowing I have a friend who’s willing to chuck her wheels sometimes seems to increase my motivation and ability to do the same.

There’s no getting around it—navigating your way through life often requires a car. But when it doesn’t, try steering a new course, one that’s not only healthier but also more enjoyable!