Fitness Articles

Is Your Car Making You Fat?

More Drive Time May Mean More Unwanted Pounds


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!

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Member Comments

    Thanks for sharing.
  • Can hardly wait until I can get my bicycle out.
  • I really enjoyed your blog. I have a disability sticker for the rest of my life and I am tempted to use it but decided that I was depriving myself of valuable walking. Now I only use it when it is seriously raining or snow. Not only am I helping myself but not taking valuable space for less fortunate. There is no denying that I do need it occasionally when the pain gets out of control but give that body a chance to enjoy its life.
    I park as far from the door as I can. But living 3 miles in on a dirt road and 5-10 miles from the nearest store really isn't feasible to walk or ride a bike to do my shopping. I do walk on my lunch and on my breaks at work. If I was in the city I would walk or ride my bike all the time.
  • We live 8 miles from the nearest town, so driving really is a necessity. That said, we generally try to find a shady spot to park (read that: "the farthest spot from the door"). And on the rare occasion that we stop at big burger, you will never see us go thru the drive-thru...wher
    e to get "in-n-out" you are in a line of at least 10-12 cars. But yes, as another commenter posted, when I was a kid, we had fast food maybe once a week, but we walked the mile or so there and back. Mom almost always had cookies for us made from scratch, but I remember that I played outside until it was dark. During Christmas vacation, I remember having a blast riding thru deep rainwater puddles with my bike to see how far the water would splash. When we lived near an irrigation canal, winter meant sloshing around in the canal to find trapped fish for the cats to eat. In other words, we were always active and doing something. Now, I can't remember the last time I saw kids tossing a football in the street, or playing basketball at the park...they're too busy with their phones for that. When they walk, it is at about a 1.5 mph snail crawl. Obesity in this country is going to get much worse before it gets better, because we haven't taught our kids to go out and have active fun.
    Finally. An article about not moving. I get so sick of all these reports and commercials about fast foods causing obesity. Yes, eating junk food will cause you to gain weight. But, hey, a calorie is a calorie. Everyone talks about supersize and fancy coffees. These have been around for as long as I remember. What hasn't been around is the drive thrus.

    We used to go to a fast food restaurant about once a week or so when I was a kid. We had a snack before bed every night; usually ice cream with chocolate syrup. Friday night was special. My sister and I would walk to the store and buy soda, a bag of chips and an individual sweet, like a fruit pie or cream horn.

    The difference then is we WALKED. Everywhere. Or rode our bikes. All day, everyday. If we went to a restaurant, we got out of the car and walked into the restaurant. If we went to the bank, we got out of the car and walked inside. In a town near us, there is even a drive-thru creamy stand. This generation has become sedentary. We have moved away from cities and become so busy, that we don't even think about getting out of our cars to run errands.

    Me included. That is why I have made a concious effort to park farther away and to try to stay away from tbe drive thrus. Thanks for this article and letting me vent! This has been on my mind for quite some time.
  • I am one of the lucky ones. I am now retired and I live 6 miles from the grocery store. I am basically a home body and don't drive much. If I drive to GA (5 or 6 hours) to visit my sister, I always stop two times during the drive to stretch my legs.
  • I try to walk everywhere I can now, even if it's an over two hour walk. It's great exercise! I only take the bus if I'm going somewhere with my mom. Or I will take the bus there, like if I am trying on clothes and I want to smell fresh and clean, and then I walk home.
  • Well I know my driving job stopped me from exercising and my weight went up 4 stone 56lbs.

    I now walk instead of taking the car but for shopping
  • Very good article. As someone that lives in the suburbs, I'm amazed at the number of people who drive everywhere or that can't believe I prefer walking whenever I can. Our local Y is a mile from our house and once a week my boys take swim classes there, so if the weather allows, we always walk. When people hear that we walk a whole mile to the Y (and further home as we take a longer route), they can't believe we'd walk that far, through a residential area!!! They think 1 mile is too far to walk. And one other time we had some friends over for a picnic and one friend had forgotten something for the dish they brought and asked if there was a grocery store nearby. We have one 2 blocks away and sent him there on foot. He got home and said if he'd known it was that far, he would have driven! That far???? You can see the back of the store from our house! It just shocks me how "lazy" much of our society has become. I always try to walk when I can and at my job and when I do drive to stores to shop, I always park at the back end of the parking lot, I consider it free exercise. And if I have multiple stores in a shopping plaza to go to, I will park at one end and walk to each store (maybe run bags back to my car if I have something heavy or a lot of stuff). Walking for most people is free and easy, so we should walk when we can.
  • This article was clearly written by someone who lives in the suburbs or urban areas. I live in the country in the Midwest. It is 5 miles to town on rough gravel roads and very curvy narrow highways w/o shoulders. That being said, I drive to town and then park near the back of parking lots to get some walking. I will also walk from store to store w/o using the SUV. Country life does provide one walking option that city life doesn't: the long walk to my mailbox (lol)!
  • I live in and area that has a high rate of Pedestrian vs Car accidents, so walking can be scary. I ride my bike when ever I can, but a lot of drivers have "two wheel blindness". Basically, anything on the road with out four or more wheels does not get consideration. I do not own a car and use the bus, so I probably walk a little more that the ave person with a car.
  • I walk a lot and I love it. I want to walk more....would love to live in a place where I could walk to the store or to the coffee shop or to work. I have walked the three miles home from the store once but the road has no sidewalk, no shoulder and lots of maniac drivers, so that probably won't happen again.
  • I appreciate this article! We all need to get out more. One major realization I had was when I introduced worms to my preschoolers. I teach 100 of them in a garden each week and more than one exclaimed, "I've never seen these before!" They were so excited! Worms were a major part of the scenery of my childhood and I realized that these kids were being driven door-to-door, unable to experience the wonder of worms and the other natural beauties around us.

About The Author

Rebecca Pratt Rebecca Pratt
A freelance writer who contributes to various newspapers and magazines, Becky loves covering ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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