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The Globe and Mail

Our cars are killing us - and not just in the way you might think

Our love affair with the automobile often leads to a broken heart – quite literally.

Two studies published this week drive home the message that an overreliance on the car can contribute to the development of heart disease.

One study found that long car commutes to and from work are associated with a decrease in overall fitness.

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The researchers examined more than 4,000 people who live and work in Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth region, which is ranked among the top five most congested metropolitan areas of the United States.

"This is the first study to show that long commutes can take away from exercise and are associated with higher weights, lower fitness levels and higher blood-pressure – all of these are strong predictors of cardiovascular disease," said the lead researcher, Christine Hoehner at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

"Previous studies have looked at how health is affected by sedentary behaviour, like TV watching. But we wanted to zero in specifically on commuting distances because commuting is such an important part of people's daily routine," she explained.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, revealed that commuting more than 16 kilometres was linked to elevated blood pressure. Those who commuted more than 24 kilometres also had an elevated risk of not getting enough exercise and being obese.

The second study examined the health risks of living close to state highways and major roads with two lanes of traffic in both directions.

The researchers looked at more than 3,500 people who had already experienced one heart attack. The analysis, published in the journal Circulation, showed that those living less than 100 metres from a busy roadway had a 27 per cent higher risk of dying over a 10-year period, compared to those who lived a kilometre away.

Air pollution from vehicle exhaust, plus the noise and stress of living in close proximity to traffic are likely responsible for the shorter life span of heart-attack patients who resided near a major thoroughfare, said the senior researcher, Murray Mittleman of Harvard Medical School in Boston. "As you go further back from the roadway, the exposures tend to trail off and so does the risk," he said.

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Both research teams said people need to counter the negative effects of car culture on their lives. For instance, commuters could go for walks during the day, suggested Dr. Hoehner.

Still, there is only so much an individual can do. Dr. Hoehner noted that employers must provide time for exercise breaks. And, according to Dr. Mittleman, public policies are needed to curb vehicle exhaust and ensure that housing and schools are set back from major roads.

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