Does Increased Weight + Reduced Physical Activity = Greater CO2 Emissions

Tank34Research Paper Title

Associations of Health, Physical Activity and Weight Status with Motorised Travel and Transport Carbon Dioxide Emissions: A Cross-sectional, Observational Study.


Motorised travel and associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generate substantial health costs; in the case of motorised travel, this may include contributing to rising obesity levels. Obesity has in turn been hypothesised to increase motorised travel and/or CO2 emissions, both because heavier people may use motorised travel more and because heavier people may choose larger and less fuel-efficient cars. These hypothesised associations have not been examined empirically, however, nor has previous research examined associations with other health characteristics. The researchers aim was, therefore, to examine how and why weight status, health, and physical activity are associated with transport CO2 emissions.


3463 adults completed questionnaires in the baseline iConnect survey at three study sites in the UK, reporting their health, weight, height and past-week physical activity. Seven-day recall instruments were used to assess travel behaviour and, together with data on car characteristics, were used to estimate CO2 emissions. The researchers used path analysis to examine the extent to which active travel, motorised travel and car engine size explained associations between health characteristics and CO2 emissions.


CO2 emissions were higher in overweight or obese participants (multivariable standardised probit coefficients 0.16, 95% CI 0.08 to 0.25 for overweight vs. normal weight; 0.16, 95% CI 0.04 to 0.28 for obese vs. normal weight). Lower active travel and, particularly for obesity, larger car engine size explained 19-31% of this effect, but most of the effect was directly explained by greater distance travelled by motor vehicles. Walking for recreation and leisure-time physical activity were associated with higher motorised travel distance and therefore higher CO2 emissions, while active travel was associated with lower CO2 emissions. Poor health and illness were not independently associated with CO2 emissions.


Establishing the direction of causality between weight status and travel behaviour requires longitudinal data, but the association with engine size suggests that there may be at least some causal effect of obesity on CO2 emissions. More generally, transport CO2 emissions are associated in different ways with different health-related characteristics. These include associations between health goods and environmental harms (recreational physical activity and high emissions), indicating that environment-health ‘co-benefits’ cannot be assumed. Instead, attention should also be paid to identifying and mitigating potential areas of tension, for example by promoting low-carbon recreational physical activity.

Source: Goodmna, A., Brand, C. & Ogilvie, D. (2012) Associations of Health, Physical Activity and Weight Status with Motorised Travel and Transport Carbon Dioxide Emissions: A Cross-sectional, Observational Study. Environmental Health. 11:52. Available from World Wide Web: <> [Accessed: 07 May, 2013].


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