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Health Dept: New Yorkers Get Their Exercise By Getting Around Town

3:42 PM EDT on May 20, 2011

New Yorkers engage in physical activity mostly to get around, not by specifically working out. Image: NYC DOH.

The New York City Department of Health is out with a new bulletin [PDF] articulating the public health benefits of walking, biking, and taking transit. Encouraging those modes -- and curbing the amount we drive -- will reduce deaths and injuries from traffic crashes, prevent lung disease by lowering exposure to air pollution, and improve cardiovascular health by increasing exercise.

The evidence is pretty overwhelming -- just 30 minutes of walking or biking each weekday reduces your risk of premature death by 20 percent -- and the department's recommendations are clear: New Yorkers should drive less, and the city should build the infrastructure to make walking, biking, and riding transit as safe and convenient as possible.

Most of the Health Department's factoids have already been reported, like the life-saving improvements in air quality as a result of closing parts of Broadway to traffic. But one caught our eye as a new reminder of the importance of daily commute habits for your health.

While many think of going to the gym or for a jog as the key to staying in shape, a DOH survey found that New Yorkers get most of their physical activity as they go about their daily routine. The majority of New Yorkers who take transit to work, for example, get eleven minutes of physical activity each day from recreation. But they move for 57 minutes a day just to get around, whether it's to walk to the bus or run some errands during lunch. New Yorkers who walk or bike to work get slightly more exercise than transit riders as part of their daily routine, while drivers get less than half as much. The city's compact development and strong transit system are the key to incorporating activities that lower New Yorkers' risk of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

The Health Department report should also underscore how misguided it is to argue, as Assembly Member Dov Hikind has, against traffic calming on the grounds that it might some day slow speeding ambulances by a few seconds. The city's top doctors are making the case for more traffic calming on city streets, not for the primacy of free-flowing traffic. This bulletin even singles out pedestrian refuge islands, the very safety feature that Hikind is suing to eliminate, for an endorsement.

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