A Healthy Train of Events

By Kayla Albrecht, MPH Candidate, University of Texas Health Science Center – School of Public Health, Austin Regional Campus-

Chronic disease is king nowadays. With diabetes and heart disease on the rise, exercise and balanced nutrition are among the best medicines for securing a longer, healthier life.

Yet our days are busier and workspaces more sedentary than ever before. Penciling in time to hit the gym or cook meals that take a greater effort than pushing a button on the microwave is tough.

Walking or biking to work is the most rigorous way to squeeze in those 150 CDC-recommended minutes of moderate exercise per week, but it isn’t an option for everyone – not even most people. So why not train?

Big cities are doing it. Portlandians in Oregon boast the Trimet MAX and Streetcar. Commuters in San Fran board BART trains and trolley cars. And no city rivals the ridership of the New York City Subway. Is it a coincidence that all three of these cities show lower obesity rates than their state and national rates? Maybe.

There are nearly 40 U.S. cities proposing the construction of new light rail systems, and with the potential to thin traffic, taper pollution and trim pounds – why wouldn’t they? Until the benefits of train systems are backed by longitudinal studies that follow transit systems and their patrons over time, these plans are likely to continue collecting dust.

The connection between train transit and increased exercise has been studied and confirmed. The average public transit commuter spends approximately 19 minutes briskly walking to and from bus and train stops daily. And we couldn’t be more sure of the association between exercise and reduced risk of obesity. But can it be proved that enhanced public transit itself reduces a population’s obesity rate over time?

A collaborative of researchers between the University of Texas Health Science Center and Texas A & M Transportation Institute are setting aside their traditionally staunch rivalry to study such an opportunity. Last week, Houston METRO launched the first seven of a 39-car fleet of new light rail trains, officially kicking off the much-anticipated expansion of the Houston rail system.  This is what the Texas team will do:

Over the next three years, the Houston TRAIN Study team aims to follow 1,400 Houstonites living near the new lines, collecting valuable health data. Starting the investigation at the genesis of the rail line offers the researchers a rare chance to watch health change unfold as it happens. It’s the difference between understanding the plot of a story through a single photo or a feature film.

Research that follows public transit commuters over long spans of time is crucial to understanding the actual, not just speculative, health effects of active transport. And although active transit isn’t a physical activity solve-all, it’s (literally) a step in the direction.