For most of us, active transportation (walking and bicycling) is an untapped potential source of exercise.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, three-quarters of U.S. adults reported that they do not walk even 10 minutes to get some place once in a typical week (original article here, summary here). Unless your job keeps you fairly active, you probably rely entirely on leisure-time activity for exercise. For most of us, active transportation (walking and bicycling) is an untapped potential source of exercise.

Several years ago, a construction project involved relocating a parking lot further away from the medical school where I worked. That didn’t affect me, because I biked, but my friend Denise complained about having to walk so far to her car. By the time the construction project finished, she had lost 10 pounds. More importantly, her cardiovascular fitness had increased.

“I ought to keep parking way out there,” she said, wearing jeans that used to be too small. But the temptation of the closer parking lot was too great. She soon lost her new cardiovascular fitness and regained her 10 pounds.

This is a great example of how a small change can make a big difference and how external factors can influence an individual’s fitness. Design elements like sidewalks and parking lot locations that make it both easier to walk and bike and harder to drive are more effective than unused free gym memberships and education campaigns exhorting us to exercise more. College campuses traditionally are closed to motor vehicles, with the result that people walk and bike more during their college years than any other time of life.

But we complain about it! When I drive, I often park in the furthest spot from the store, partly for the opportunity to walk just a bit extra, but mostly because I hate circling the parking lot looking for a space. When my family was with me, my husband complained, “I feel like you are trying to force your lifestyle on me.” Our daughter (then 13) told him, “She’s your wife. She’s supposed to.”

While parking in that furthest spot is a great idea, few of us will voluntarily do so, and then only for reasons other than our fitness. It’s not a moral failing that we want to park in the closest spot. I too will park close to the door in an empty lot that I don’t have to circle. We need a better reason to do it, than that it’s good for us.

To encourage people to use active transportation, we need areas designed more like college campuses, with a few small parking lots primarily for handicapped accessibility, and larger more parking, with safe and attractive routes to walk and bike. According to studies that have been done on communities with this kind of design, it won’t hurt our economy. In fact, it will stimulate it. And it will improve our health, reducing health care costs.

We’ll complain, but we’ll spend a little less money on gas and cars and medical care. We’ll have a little more money to spend on the things we buy at the stores we drive or walk to.

Thanks to Truman Rec Center director Sue Limestall for alerting me to the AJPM article!