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Stress and obesity a heavy road toll

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Anyone stuck behind the wheel for long stretches, battling through city traffic or hauling through the countryside, intuitively knows that all the time spent on the road is unlikely to be boost for their health.

But they might be shocked to discover that spending more than two hours a day driving almost doubles the risk of obesity and inadequate sleep, and substantially increases the likelihood of psychological distress, inactivity and poor quality of life.

In a finding that highlights the human cost of poor city planning and inadequate transport infrastructure, a Sydney University study found that people who drive a lot every day (two or more hours) are more likely to smoke and to be obese, distressed and sleep-deprived.

Showing that people are aware of the dangers inherent in their lifestyle, those who commuted for two or more hours every day reported sub-standard health and quality of life.

“We found a dose-response relationship between driving time and a clustering of health risk behaviours, particularly smoking, physical inactivity and insufficient sleep,” lead author Dr Ding Ding of Sydney University’s School of Public Health said. “The more time people spent driving, the greater their odds of having poor health and risk factors for poor health.

More than 70 per cent of adults use a car to get to work or study each day, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and private surveys indicate that the average commute time is 27 minutes each way, though for one in five it is regularly more than 45 minutes each way.

Based on responses from almost 40,000 people aged between 47 and 75 years, the Sydney University researchers found that those who drove two or more hours a day had a 78 per cent increased risk of being obese, were 87 per cent more likely to have had insufficient sleep (defined as less than seven hours a day), were almost 60 per cent more at risk of not exercising enough, and were almost a third more likely than the general population to be suffering psychological distress.

Dr Ding said these elevated health risks were independent of age, gender, education and other socioeconomic factors.

But, while the findings were consistent with other studies that linked driving with cardio-metabolic health, causality was yet to be determined.

“This study highlights driving as a potential lifestyle risk factor for public health, [but] further research is needed to confirm causality and to understand the mechanisms for the observed associations,” Dr Ding said.

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

Adrian Rollins