Driving is an activity many people do every day as part of their commute to work or school or to run errands. With so much time spent behind the wheel, many wonder if driving could contribute to weight loss goals.
Does the act of driving burn calories?
The simple answer is yes, driving does burn calories and therefore contributes to weight loss, but the number of calories burned while driving is relatively small.
Driving itself requires some physical movements that engage muscles and burn calories, like pressing the accelerator and brake pedals, turning the steering wheel, looking over your shoulder to change lanes or check blindspots, and getting in and out of the car. However, because these motions are relatively minor, the number of calories burned by the physical acts of driving is low.
For example, a 160 pound person would burn approximately 100 calories per hour of driving. So a half hour commute would burn around 50 calories, and an hour long commute 100 calories. Over the course of a week of commuting, this would equate to 500-1000 calories burned from the physical motions of driving alone.
While driving does burn some calories, it is considered a light physical activity. Activities like walking, jogging, swimming or biking would burn significantly more calories per hour. So driving itself results in relatively low calorie expenditure.
Can driving lead to weight gain?
While driving may burn some calories, there are some factors related to driving that can actually contribute to weight gain.
Driving involves prolonged sitting, which is by nature a sedentary activity. Spending extended periods of time seated and stationary can slow down the metabolism, leading to the burning of fewer calories compared to someone moving around frequently.
Studies have shown that sedentary lifestyles and occupations that involve prolonged sitting are associated with increased risk of obesity and weight gain over time.
Snacking in the car
Another aspect of driving that can promote weight gain is the tendency for increased snacking and unhealthy food choices on the road. The convenience of fast food drive-thrus and eating food in the car can lead to overeating high calorie foods.
Having easy access to packaged snacks, sodas, coffee drinks loaded with cream and sugar and fast food while driving can derail healthy nutrition goals. Making a habit of grabbing a muffin and coffee on the morning commute or swinging through the drive-thru for lunch promotes empty calorie intake.
Stress and fatigue
For some, driving may be a stressful or tiring activity, especially during busy commuting hours. This can cause elevated cortisol levels, which can increase appetite. Feelings of anxiety, frustration and fatigue while driving can also lead some people to make poorer food choices.
Tips for weight loss through driving
While driving itself may not burn massive amounts of calories, making some adjustments can help turn your time spent driving into an opportunity to lose weight.
Take the long way
Choosing a longer route that avoids highways in favor of side streets can extend the amount of time you spend driving. Opting for the scenic route is one simple way to add extra time behind the wheel to burn more calories.
Park farther away
Parking at the far end of the lot at your workplace, the shopping center, or even social gatherings forces you to walk farther. This helps increase your overall physical activity for the day.
Get moving after long trips
After long periods of driving, be sure to take a walk, stretch your legs, or engage in other light exercise. This can counteract the metabolism-slowing effects of sitting for extended periods.
Avoid drive-thrus and plan healthy snacks
Bringing fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds and water with you in the car can help you avoid grabbing fast food and unhealthy convenience store snacks. Planning ahead helps keeps you on track with nutrition on busy driving days.
Add exercise before or after driving
Bookending your driving with exercise like a brisk walk, a bike ride or a strength training session helps increase your calorie burn for the day to compensate for extended sitting time behind the wheel.
How does commuting to work affect weight?
For many people, a significant amount of driving time comes from commuting to and from work five days a week. So what effect does work-related driving have on weight?
Length of commute
In general, research shows longer commute times are associated with higher weight and obesity rates. One study found a link between commute times greater than 15 miles and higher BMI.
The theory is longer commutes result in less time for exercise and meal preparation, increased food spending and calorie intake from dining out, more stress, and greater propensity to be sedentary during the day.
Driving vs public transportation
Public transportation like trains, subways, and buses typically requires some walking to stops and stations. One study found people who commuted via public transportation walked an average of 19 minutes more per day compared to drivers.
However, other studies have found no significant difference in weight between those who drive versus take public transportation to work. Much may depend on your specific commute and habits.
People who drive to sedentary office jobs face particular challenges. Prolonged sitting while driving followed by prolonged sitting at a desk can greatly increase inactivity levels and calorie expenditure.
Taking walking breaks, using a standing desk, skipping elevators, and exercising during breaks can help counteract all that seated time in the car and office.
Does driving occupation impact weight?
For people whose jobs involve prolonged or excessive driving, such as truck drivers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, and some sales professionals, the impact of all those hours on the road can be significant.
Studies show truck, taxi, and delivery drivers who spend the bulk of their workdays driving are at increased risk for obesity compared to the general population. Lack of exercise opportunities, irregular eating patterns, stress, and lack of rest are contributing factors.
However, drivers with the most unstable schedules, like long haul truckers, appear to be at even greater risk. Eating at odd hours and constantly shifting circadian rhythms promote metabolic disruption and weight gain.
Tips for drivers
Those whose occupations involve prolonged driving can counteract the effects by:
- Planning ahead with healthy snacks and meals
- Looking for places to walk or be active during breaks and down time
- Structuring regular exercise into their schedule before or after driving shifts
- Practicing stress management techniques
- Prioritizing quality sleep when possible
How does routine driving impact body composition?
Beyond just weight gain or loss, spending significant time driving can also impact overall body composition – the balance of lean muscle mass to body fat.
Decreased muscle mass
The combination of too much sitting time and too little exercise prompted by a heavy driving schedule can lead to decreased muscle mass over time. Long bouts of inactivity accelerates muscle loss.
Increased body fat
Greater body fat composition can also develop from routine extended driving. Too much sedentary time coupled with increased appetite and unhealthy food choices commonly made while driving are partly to blame.
Increased visceral fat
Visceral fat that accumulates around the organs in the abdomen is linked to elevated disease risk. Sitting for long periods has been connected to higher amounts of visceral or belly fat compared to standing and moving more frequently.
How else can driving impact health?
Beyond weight and body composition changes, spending significant time behind the wheel can influence other aspects of health and well-being.
For many people, driving elevates stress levels, especially during periods of heavy traffic or inclement weather conditions. Chronic stress can have myriad negative health effects.
Research has linked time spent driving to increases in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein as well as higher blood pressure. This type of inflammation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline and depression.
Increased risk of blood clots
Sitting still in a cramped position for extended driving periods can increase the risk of developing dangerous blood clots deep in the veins of the legs. These are called deep vein thrombosis.
Poor blood sugar control
Frequent long drives paired with unhealthy eating habits in the car can result in blood sugar spikes and poor glycemic control, especially for those with diabetes or prediabetes.
Fatigue and drowsiness
Driving for hours on end can take a toll physically and mentally, resulting in fatigue that makes driving safely difficult. Long drives are taxing and often impair cognitive performance.
Back and neck pain
Improper posture and tension while sitting and staring ahead during long drives may bring on back, neck and shoulder pain in some people. Joint stiffness from immobility can also occur.
Driving requires some physical exertion which can burn calories, but due to the mostly sedentary nature of driving the amount of calories expended is fairly small. Prolonged sitting time plus opportunities to eat unhealthy food in the car can promote weight gain.
Commuting to work by car, especially long distances, is associated with increased obesity risk compared to more active commutes. Occupations involving excessive driving put people at higher risk of weight gain and body composition changes from too much inactivity.
Combating the effects requires making conscious dietary choices on the road and dedicating time for planned fitness routines before or after driving. Being aware of the detriments of spending too much time behind the wheel is key to maintaining wellness.