New Report from the Health Department Links Active Transportation to Better Health

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You don’t have to join a gym to stay active; new findings show that commuting styles affect wellbeing

December 3, 2009 – Fewer than half of adult New Yorkers (42%) get recommended levels of physical activity, but a new report from the Health Department highlights an easy way to be less sedentary. New York is one of the nation’s most foot-friendly cities, and people who take advantage of that fact are likely to be healthier for it. More than two thirds (68%) of adult New Yorkers report walking or biking at least 10 blocks to run errands or get to work or school during the past month – and 16% of working adults count walking or biking as part of their daily commute. New Yorkers’ activity levels vary widely by age, race and neighborhood, but across all demographic groups, people who integrate physical activity into daily life report better health and less mental distress.

Active commuting, defined as any “self-propelled” mode of transportation to and from work or school, includes walking, running, cycling or skating. Besides detailing how many New Yorkers now commute actively, the new study offers tips for integrating exercise into daily life. “Just 10 minutes of exercise at a time can improve long-term health,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. “Active commuting is an excellent way to incorporate more exercise into a daily routine.” The full report, “Physical Activity in New York City” is available at

The new study finds that people become less active with age. Only 24% of 18- to 24-year-old New Yorkers report fewer than 10 blocks of active travel during the past month, but the proportion grows to 27% among 25- to 44-year-olds, 34% among 45- to 64-year-olds, and 46% among those 65 and older. Yet older working New Yorkers are more likely than younger ones to make active commuting a habit. Some 28% of those 65 and older report regular walking or biking, versus 14% of those 45 to 64, 13% of those 25 to 44, and 16% of those 18 to 24. Among youth, only one in five students (20%) walk or bike to school most days, through the rate is higher among kids who can make the trip in 20 minutes or less.

While New York City is generally more walkable than other American cities, its geography and commuting patterns vary significantly by neighborhood. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers are more likely to venture out on foot if their neighborhoods have schools, businesses and retail shops within walking distance. Active commuting is also more common in areas where public transportation is readily accessible. These factors may help explain why Manhattan residents are more likely than other New Yorkers to include walking or biking in their daily commute (31% versus 12%), and less likely to report less than 10 blocks of active transportation in the past month (33% versus 44%).Graph 1  

Active commuting also varies by race and ethnicity. Some 20% of white New Yorkers walk or bike regularly, versus 16% of Hispanics, 14% of Asians and 11% of blacks. Likewise, black students are less likely than students of other races and ethnicities (15% versus 22%) to walk or bike to school on a regular basis.

Across all groups of New Yorkers, integrating physical activity into everyday life is strongly associated with better health and emotional well-being. The new study finds that 83% of those who walk or bike at least 10 blocks each month – versus 70% of those who don’t – describe their health as good, very good or excellent. And the association between health and integrated physical activity holds across income levels. Among low-income New Yorkers, for example, 72% of those who walk or bike regularly report good or excellent health. The rate is just 59% among less active adults from the same income group. Besides feeling healthier, New Yorkers who walk or bike for routine activities are less likely to report frequent mental distress than those who don’t (10% versus 14%). 

Safety is an essential part of active commuting for both children and adults. Helmets greatly reduce the risk of fatal injury among cyclists, as do lights, reflective clothing and careful observance of traffic rules. Yet an alarming 89% of youth who ride bicycles say they rarely or never wear helmets. The City is working to promote bike use and keep active commuting safe and enjoyable by maintaining good lighting, expanding bike lanes, and keeping streets and sidewalks clear of hazardous obstacles.

Here are some tips to help New Yorkers integrate exercise into their daily lives:

  • Take advantage of everyday opportunities to stay active. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk or bike to run errands or get to work, or get off the bus or subway one or two stops early to add a brisk walk to your trip.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most or preferably all days (at least two and a half hours per week). You can spread your activity out over the course of the day.
  • Encourage children and adolescents to spend at least 60 minutes a day being physically active.
  • Wear a helmet while bicycling and use proper lighting at night.  Children younger than 14 are legally required to wear helmets when cycling.
  • Call 311 for information and locations of free “Shape Up New York” exercise classes or to learn more about your nearest Parks and Recreation Center.