Using data from the Indian Migration Study, Christopher Millett and colleagues examine the associations between active travel to work and overweight, hypertension, and diabetes.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Increasing active travel (walking, bicycling, and public transport) is promoted as a key strategy to increase physical activity and reduce the growing burden of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) globally. Little is known about patterns of active travel or associated cardiovascular health benefits in low- and middle-income countries. This study examines mode and duration of travel to work in rural and urban India and associations between active travel and overweight, hypertension, and diabetes.
Methods and Findings
Cross-sectional study of 3,902 participants (1,366 rural, 2,536 urban) in the Indian Migration Study. Associations between mode and duration of active travel and cardiovascular risk factors were assessed using random-effect logistic regression models adjusting for age, sex, caste, standard of living, occupation, factory location, leisure time physical activity, daily fat intake, smoking status, and alcohol use. Rural dwellers were significantly more likely to bicycle (68.3% versus 15.9%; p<0.001) to work than urban dwellers. The prevalence of overweight or obesity was 50.0%, 37.6%, 24.2%, 24.9%; hypertension was 17.7%, 11.8%, 6.5%, 9.8%; and diabetes was 10.8%, 7.4%, 3.8%, 7.3% in participants who travelled to work by private transport, public transport, bicycling, and walking, respectively. In the adjusted analysis, those walking (adjusted risk ratio [ARR] 0.72; 95% CI 0.58–0.88) or bicycling to work (ARR 0.66; 95% CI 0.55–0.77) were significantly less likely to be overweight or obese than those travelling by private transport. Those bicycling to work were significantly less likely to have hypertension (ARR 0.51; 95% CI 0.36–0.71) or diabetes (ARR 0.65; 95% CI 0.44–0.95). There was evidence of a dose-response relationship between duration of bicycling to work and being overweight, having hypertension or diabetes. The main limitation of the study is the cross-sectional design, which limits causal inference for the associations found.
Walking and bicycling to work was associated with reduced cardiovascular risk in the Indian population. Efforts to increase active travel in urban areas and halt declines in rural areas should be integral to strategies to maintain healthy weight and prevent NCDs in India.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and obesity (excessive body fat) are major threats to global health. Every year, more than 36 million people (including 29 million in LMICs) die from NCDs—nearly two-thirds of the world's annual deaths. Cardiovascular diseases (conditions that affect the heart and the circulation), diabetes, cancer, and respiratory diseases are responsible for most NCD-related deaths. Obesity is a risk factor for all these NCDs and the global prevalence of obesity (the proportion of the world's population that is obese) has nearly doubled since 1980. In 2008, 35% of adults were overweight and 11% were obese. One reason for the growing burden of both obesity and NCDs is increasing physical inactivity. Regular physical activity helps to maintain a healthy body weight and to prevent or delay the onset of NCDs. For an adult, 30 minutes of moderate physical activity—walking briskly or cycling, for example—five times a week is sufficient to promote and maintain health. But the daily lives of people in both developed and developing countries are becoming increasingly sedentary and, nowadays, at least 60% of the world's population does not do even this modest amount of exercise.
Why Was This Study Done?
Strategies to increase physical activity levels often promote active travel (walking, cycling, and using public transport). The positive impact of active travel on physical activity levels and cardiovascular health is well established in high-income countries, but little is known about the patterns of active travel or the health benefits associated with active travel in poorer countries. In this cross-sectional study (an investigation that measures population characteristics at a single time point), the researchers examine the mode and duration of travel to work in rural and urban India and associations between active travel and overweight/obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease), and diabetes. In India, a lower middle-income country, the prevalence of overweight and NCDs is projected to increase rapidly over the next two decades. Moreover, rapid unplanned urbanization and a large increase in registered motor vehicles has resulted in inadequate development of the public transport infrastructure and hazardous conditions for walking and cycling in most Indian towns and cities.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
For their study, researchers analyzed physical activity and health data collected from participants in the Indian Migration Study, which examined the association between migration from rural to urban areas and obesity and diabetes risk. People living in rural areas were more likely to cycle to work than people living in towns and cities (68.3% versus 15.9%). Among people who travelled to work by private transport, public transport, walking, and cycling, the prevalence of overweight or obesity was 50.0%, 37.6%, 24.9%, and 24.2%, respectively. Similar patterns were seen for the prevalence of hypertension and diabetes. After adjustment for factors that affect the risk of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes (for example, daily fat intake and leisure time physical activity), people walking or cycling to work were less likely to be overweight or obese than those travelling by public transport, and those cycling to walk were less likely to have hypertension or diabetes. Finally, people with long cycle rides to work had a lower risk of being overweight or having hypertension or diabetes than people with short cycle rides.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that, as in high-income settings, walking and cycling to work are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in India. Because this was a cross-sectional study, these findings do not prove that active travel reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease—people who cycle to work may share other unknown characteristics that are actually responsible for their reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Moreover, this study did not consider non-cardiovascular outcomes associated with active travel that might affect health such as increased exposure to air pollution. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that programs designed to maintain healthy weight and prevent NCDs in India should endeavor to increase active travel in urban areas and to halt declines in rural areas by, for example, increasing investment in public transport and improving the safety and convenience of walking and cycling routes in urban areas.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001459.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Kavi Bhalla
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on all aspects of healthy living, on chronic diseases and health promotion, on overweight and obesity and on non-communicable diseases around the world; its Physical Activity for Everyone web pages include guidelines, instructional videos and personal success stories (some information in English and Spanish)
The World Health Organization provides information about physical activity and health, about obesity, and about non-communicable diseases (in several languages); its 2010 Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health are available in several languages; its Global Noncommunicable Disease Network (NCDnet) aims to help low- and middle- income countries reduce NCD-related illnesses and death through implementation of the 20082013 Action Plan for the Global Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (also available in French); Face to face with chronic diseases is a selection of personal stories from around the world about dealing with NCDs
The American Heart Association provides information on many important risk factors for non-communicable diseases and provides tips for becoming more active
Information about the Indian Migration Study is available