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Car-Free in Nashville Chronicles: Physical Health

September 12, 2012

This is the third in a series about my experiences being car-free for a year. I see it as health-related in the sense that our automobile culture is hard on the planet and exposes us to pollutants, and our reliance on driving affects where and how we live, how we move, what we eat, what information and services we have access to, and many other aspects of our lives. However, individual posts may or may not focus on health implications, and some will be fairly specific to the environment of Nashville, TN. I hope this is useful to people considering their use of cars and others with the potential to affect how cities organize themselves around transportation.

For this installment of the Car-Free Chronicles, I thought I’d take a post to talk about some of the physical health effects of being car-free, both good and bad. This all comes with the giant caveat that I am an able-bodied 30-something with no physical disabilities to make life as a pedestrian even more difficult.

Body Weight
The first thing people often assume about my drastically increased walking is, “Oh, I bet you’ve lost weight!” I have been walking an extra 1.25 to 2.5 miles per day just to get to and from work, not counting additional walks to run errands, catch buses, or do other activities. Previously, I was getting basically no regular exercise. I have not lost weight. Sure, there are parts of my body that are less “fatty” now, for lack of a better descriptor. I have also gained more, and heavier, muscle – there are some muscles in my legs you could use to crack walnuts.

According to the scale, I may have actually gained a couple of pounds. And that’s where I run into trouble with the professional fitness cheerleaders. They don’t see my excellent blood pressure, my major increase in physical activity, my increased strength and flexibility. They see an obese person who gained two pounds. No context, no meaning, just OMGFAT!!! Guess how I feel about this approach in much of medicine?

So yes, walking so much has made me stronger and fitter and it’s good for me in other physical and mental ways. It is not a given that it will cause anybody – including me – to lose weight. I, however, feel better for it, and that’s all I actually care about.

Vehicles and Their Drivers
Drivers are obviously a huge physical threat. I’ve had cars come way too close for comfort because they weren’t paying attention. I’ve had dudes in cars deliberately veer their cars toward me while shouting at me. This is all made worse by the lack of sidewalks. I’m not sure which is worse, because at least the obnoxious, harassing dudes know I’m there, rather than being absorbed in their text messages.

I’ve also dealt with creepy men talking to me while I walk or wait on buses, and you never quite know how that is going to turn out. In general, I find that human animals – whether walking or driving – are the biggest threat to my physical health while being car-free. It’s not accidental trips and falls, germs, sunburn, heat stroke, frostbite, mangy dogs, dehydration – it’s people.

True facts: According to the CDC, 69,000 pedestrians are injured and >4,000 are killed each year – and half the time, those deaths are caused by drunk drivers.

Dogs and Other Creatures
Unrestrained dogs are the biggest non-human animal threat to me as a pedestrian. I have been followed by dogs, barked at by dogs, and have walked certain known, friendly dogs back to their homes. I’ve been lucky not to encounter any particularly aggressive dogs, so haven’t had any bites. Dogs can be surprisingly quiet on sidewalks, too – I had one dog touch its nose to my calf before I even realized it was there. Dear people: please restrain your dogs.

Side note: I have also been intimidatingly flapped at by a hovering bird while walking, and I am really disappointed by not being able to find the perfect animated gif to illustrate this. C’mon, people, give me your bird attack gifs.

Sick Days
Being car-free has completely changed my perspective on taking sick days. I’ve always been that jerk who drags her corpse into school or work in almost all circumstances. When faced with the prospect of a mile+ walk or trudging around between buses just to get to work enters the picture, I’m much more likely to stay home. It’s a huge privilege that I even have paid sick days to take, and a workplace that mostly supports the taking of those days. If I didn’t have them, if I worked somewhere that would just fire me for calling in, the discomfort of being sick would just be amplified.

The other obvious issue for being sick and car-free is actually getting to a healthcare provider. Sometimes I’ll drag myself to work anyway, because work is stuffed with available providers. If I want go to my preferred primary care provider off-campus, though, I have to take half a day off work to get there and back on the bus. Thankfully I go somewhere that’s not usually hopelessly off-schedule. We don’t have a mechanism for taking half-days off work, though, so I either have to plan to make that time up or take an often unneeded full day of leave. Could be much worse, but still less than ideal – and I have a degree of freedom and access here that many other car-free individuals can’t access.

If you’re going to ride public transportation, especially in the winter, I have one piece of advice for you: think about a flu shot. It’s easy enough for the coughing, sneezing, and close bus quarters to spread airborne diseases. If you’re not up to date on your vaccinations, think about getting them.

This all comes with the caveat of that their are certain folks who can’t get certain vaccines, or need to time them appropriately for pregnancy or other reasons, and you should make your own medical decisions in partnership with your own providers. Just think about it, and educate yourself on how many of the common flu shot myths – like getting the flu from the shot – are completely untrue.

Here’s a chart of the vaccines recommended for adults at specific ages. This site has lots of info specifically on the flu shot, and will have a locator for where you can find one near you once it gets closer to flu season.

Heat and Sun
People often worry that I’ll freeze when walking in the winter, but in Tennessee, summer is a much more dangerous season, weather-wise. Being car-free takes more deliberate planning around the heat, affecting clothing choice, route/method planning, need to carry water, time allotted for walking, and more. I have to explicitly think about slowing my usual walking speed, or in the heat of mid-summer I will literally make myself sick. Earlier this summer, I had to walk 15-20 minutes across campus to wander around lost on unshaded asphalt in >100 F heat looking for my reserved ZipCar. By the time I got there, I was nauseated and shaky.

Heat is serious business, and one thing I concluded from this summer is that city planners who wish to support pedestrians need to do more than just build sidewalks – they need to create accompanying shade. The difference in my body’s ability to accommodate 100 degree summers in unshaded vs. shaded areas is tremendous – I can tolerate much more for longer in shade. Let’s keep in mind that outdoor travel is *not* optional for many people, even in the heat. It will require creative solutions, but providing walkable areas that are also shaded could be good for public health, making walking a more pleasant and comfortable experience for those who might choose to walk for exercise, and a safer and healthier experience for those who have to walk for transportation.

Those are the things I could think of on the “physical health” aspects of being car-free – if I’ve missed a topic you’re interested in, let me know in the comments.

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