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Trade-Offs Between Commuting Time and Health-Related Activities


To further understand documented associations between obesity and urban sprawl, this research describes individuals’ trade-offs between health-related activities and commuting time. A cross-section of 24,861 working-age individuals employed full-time and residing in urban counties is constructed from the American Time Use Survey (2003–2010). Data are analyzed using seemingly unrelated regressions to quantify health-related activity decreases in response to additional time spent commuting. Outcomes are total daily minutes spent in physical activity at a moderate or greater intensity, preparing food, eating meals with family, and sleeping. Commuting time is measured as all travel time between home and work and vice versa. The mean commuting time is 62 min daily, the median is 55 min, and 10.1% of workers commute 120 min or more. Spending an additional 60 min daily commuting above average is associated with a 6% decrease in aggregate health-related activities and spending an additional 120 min is associated with a 12% decrease. The greatest percentage of commuting time comes from sleeping time reductions (28–35%). Additionally, larger proportions of commuting time are taken from physical activity and food preparation relative to the mean commuting length: of 60 min spent commuting, 16.1% is taken from physical activity and 4.1% is taken from food preparation; of 120 min commuting, 20.3% is taken from physical activity and 5.6% is taken from food preparation. The results indicate that longer commutes are associated with behavioral patterns which over time may contribute to obesity and other poor health outcomes. These findings will assist both urban planners and researchers wishing to understand time constraints’ impacts on health.

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Innumerable faculty and student colleagues of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and several anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments at all stages of this research, and I would like to acknowledge research support from the Dan E. Sweat Dissertation Fellowship. I also particularly thank Inas Rashad Kelly for continued suggestions, guidance, and encouragement. All errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Thomas J. Christian.

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Christian, T.J. Trade-Offs Between Commuting Time and Health-Related Activities. J Urban Health 89, 746–757 (2012).

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  • Health behaviors
  • Obesity
  • Commuting
  • Time allocation
  • Time scarcity