Confirmed: New Yorkers Reap Health Benefits From Walking and Biking

walk_bike.jpgGraphic: NYC Department of Health

The NYC Department of Health announced the results of a citywide survey today [PDF] assessing the health benefits of regular walking and biking. Based on telephone interviews with more than 10,000 New Yorkers, the health department reveals that people who incorporate walking and biking into their daily routine are significantly more likely to report good physical and mental health than those who don’t. The report concludes with recommendations to encourage walking and biking, including steps like building safer infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

There’s a lot of interesting numbers to comb through, including some geographic data with big implications for New York City neighborhoods. First off, here are some of the major takeaways:

  • Sixteen percent of New Yorkers incorporate walking, biking, running, or skating into their daily commute.*
  • Eighty-three percent of adult New Yorkers who regularly walk or bike for transportation report excellent, very good or good health, compared to 70 percent of those who do not.
  • The correlation between better health
    and frequent walking and biking is significant, regardless of income level.
  • Only 10 percent of New Yorkers who regularly walk or bike report frequent mental distress, compared to 14 percent of those who do not regularly walk or bike.
  • Men are significantly more likely to bike to work in New York City than women.

So in nerve-fraying NYC, getting around using your own muscle power can help alleviate mental stress. And walking and biking improves your chances of living in good health, no matter how much money you make. Chalk up more data to support Elana Schor’s coinage from earlier this year: "Transportation reform is health reform."

But the cycling gender divide is real, and it’s not the only significant discrepancy revealed by this report. Geographically, there are major variations in the percentage of New Yorkers who walk and bike regularly. Follow the jump to see the DOH map.

walk_bike_map.jpg

Lots of those light yellow areas really leap out. Sunset Park, north-central Brooklyn, East Harlem, the South Bronx — they are, by and large, compact neighborhoods that are less affluent than areas of the city with higher rates of walking and biking. They are also the areas of the city, by and large, that experience the highest rates of obesity and diabetes, especially among young people.

The DOH report recommends a number of steps to help New Yorkers reap the health benefits of active transportation, including the construction of better infrastructure for walking and biking. This map makes a compelling argument for where to target that investment.

*You may be wondering why this figure is so low, since most New Yorkers commute via transit and must be walking a lot in the process. The methodology, according to DOH, involved asking survey participants how they get to work. Respondents could choose multiple options. Someone could say, for instance, "I walk and I take the train." Everyone who included walking, biking, running, or skating in their response counted toward the 16 percent "active commute" figure.

  • The survey is impressive and obviously will be of great use. I’m grateful to NYC DOH for conducting it and to S’blog for its usual fine summary.

    It would be great to have a third category that isolated the reported benefits from truly “active” transportation, i.e., more than just 10 blocks’ worth.

    The “gold standard” for studies linking activity to wellness remains the Copenhagen study, “All-Cause Mortality Associated With Physical Activity During Leisure Time, Work, Sports, and Cycling to Work,” Arch. Intern. Med., Vol. 160, June 12, 2000, pp. 1621-1628. (Abstract available at PubMed.) One conclusion: “Bicycling to work decreased risk of mortality in [sic] approximately 40% after multivariate adjustment, including leisure time physical activity.”

    Yes, the linkage of physical activity to wellness is bi-directional. Still, the correlations are impressively strong in both the NYCDOH survey and the Copenhagen study.

    Last comment: the DOH tendency to equate helmets with safety is disappointing, but not surprising. Still, the survey is a winner.

  • The causation here is not obvious. Perhaps people who are unhealthy in the first place can’t or won’t walk or bike ten blocks.

  • It’s great to see more city agencies recognizing the benefits of bicycling and suggesting that more people do it! Bike New York has helped many schools, work places, and youth programs to offer bike programs; in fact, we’ve served four times as many people this past year as in 2008. If your group needs a curriculum, presentation materials, speakers, safety info, or even bikes (for free!), or you’d just like to take a class yourself, we can help: http://www.bikenewyork.org/education/trainings/index.html

  • Steven

    Could some of the lower rates be related to higher unemployment? Looking at the map, I feel that the yellow areas (Staten Island excluded) are areas of higher poverty/unemployment. If the question is “how do you get to work?” and you have no work, then you are unlikely to be biking or actively walking to work.

  • James

    As mike alludes, correlation is not causation. Perhaps those who are able to walk and bike to routine destinations occupy the more expensive areas of the city with better amenities close by, while those of lower socioeconomic status live in neighborhoods with less access to amenities. Think of somewhere like the South Bronx, with that massive City Center (or whatever its called) big box monstrosity. If the choice is to walk a few blocks to a bodega or other marginal small business and get ripped off for something you want to buy, or to drive 1-2 miles to the big box Target and get your money’s worth, which are you going to do? Yes, you have to pay for gas and parking, but humans are notorious for failing to calculate the costs of auto usage when making daily decisions. The person in Park Slope or Jackson Heights can simply walk or bike to high-quality local businesses, something sorely lacking in the more marginal areas of the city.

    Now that said, this is still good info.

  • Think of somewhere like the South Bronx, with that massive City Center (or whatever its called) big box monstrosity. If the choice is to walk a few blocks to a bodega or other marginal small business and get ripped off for something you want to buy, or to drive 1-2 miles to the big box Target and get your money’s worth, which are you going to do? Yes, you have to pay for gas and parking, but humans are notorious for failing to calculate the costs of auto usage when making daily decisions.

    That’s a beautiful argument, James, except for one thing: the vast majority of people who live in the South Bronx don’t own cars. The “so poor they have to own a car” just doesn’t work.

  • John

    I can’t believe this was ever published. It has no validity at all.

    It is a small effect on self-reported health scores (walkers 83% healthy, others 70% healthy). It is exactly what you would expect if, shocker, healthier people were more likely to choose to walk to work. But I mean, who would believe that cracked out interpretation of the results?

    In all seriousness, you should take down this embarrassment of a post. Although I guess who cares about scientific validity if there are pretty charts and maps that confirm your prejudices?

  • John

    Btw, this study offends me without even considering the fact that these numbers are self-reported, or that the effect size is so shockingly small. The conclusion in the headline of this post would not be valid if the numbers came from God.

  • Thank you for this article! I am such a HUGE believer in walking that I recently wrote a report about eleven programs to help you reach and sustain taking a very beneficial 10,000 steps per day. Readers can get it at no charge by going to http://www.SpryFeet.com/Reports/ . — Kirk Mahoney, Ph.D.

  • I think if more cities were as populated as NYC, we would have more people walking and biking. I think it makes sense that NY’ers would walk and bike more, because the city is condensed.. Houston is 60 square miles across, if I wanted to bike across town, not only would I probably get hit by a car, I’d die from heat exhaustion and muscle cramps. I think NYC caters to bikers and walkers and most cities don’t.
    -Sylvia

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