Transit riders get fit, stay relaxed

Michael Burns blows past traffic for half of his commute — it is just the first 30 minutes that can leave him stressed out.

He spends that much time going 10 miles on Georgia 400 to the North Springs MARTA station. That half-hour journey to catch the Red Line to the Peachtree Center station, he said, undercuts almost all the anti-stress benefits of travel by train.

“All it takes is five minutes of 400 to make it bad… you’re going to be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic,” the 37-year-old said. “It gets really stressful when you are two minutes away, people are stuck in the shoulder lane and the train leaves in five minutes.

“Once you’re on the train, it is pretty low stress.”

Researchers have documented links between personal health and public transit. Riders benefit from stress reduction and increased exercise because they do a lot more walking than just to the garage. Riders said on the train or bus they did everything from knit to watch videos. Occasionally some strike up friendships.

“Sometimes you might get loud people or a homeless person panhandling and every now and then you get a ‘negative’ person but there is more positive than negative to riding the train,” said Tunishia Dickerson, 33, who commutes daily from the Oakland City station to the Dunwoody station. “Just being able to get on the train and read and not having to worry about road rage.”

It is not only the train, which has the added advantage of speed. Even folks who travel by bus who are still in the same traffic report that they are more relaxed since they quit driving to work each day.

“My kids like me better — I don’t come home crabby,” said Patrica Sherman, who rides a GRTA bus from north Cobb County to Midtown. “You get in your car and you still have that tension from work during the day. I get on a bus and somebody else drives. If I’ve had a stressful day, I might just close my eyes.

“You are better equipped to deal with the family stressors if you don’t have to deal with the freeway.”

Not everybody finds it so pleasant. A an anonymous blogger who reports on people she finds objectionable on the train sounds like just stepping on a platform causes her stress to spike. “The number of mentally unstable people that harass passengers is, in itself, insane,” she wrote in an email. “MARTA has not changed since it cost $1 per ride with paper transfers. Something is wrong with that.”

Nick Juliano, 26, said the relaxed commute transit provided more than compensated for the occasional objectionable fellow rider. “I have had plenty of cases of people with body odor but you live in a big city and there are just some things that come with big city life,” he said. “You encounter those same people walking down the street and I think those experiences are few and far between and tend be greatly exaggerated.”

Still, a study done in Charlotte, N.C., reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2010 found that people on average lost more than six pounds when they started riding light rail, a finding which bolstered other studies that found the increased walking associated with transit could reduce obesity and relieve stress.

For Margo White, that means vacations aren’t necessarily as relaxing as they should be.

“I can feel a difference when I’m on vacation because I do not get that walk in the mornings and the evenings like I do when I’m working and taking the train,” said White, 60, who drove to her job at AT&T for 15 years until she started taking MARTA from the Kensington station in 2001. “I also take the steps for extra exercise…. I have a girlfriend who lost a lot of weight but when she started driving again every day, she started gaining weight again.”

MARTA officials said promoting the likelihood of weight loss or stress reduction might be a way to attract more riders from their cars, which is the group the financially strapped MARTA has to bolster to become financially sustainable. Currently most riders take transit because they lack alternative transport.

“We have never done an advertising campaign that focuses on the health benefits of riding,” said MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris. “But that is something we would consider.”

Greg Streib said he started riding the train from Candler Park to his job at Georgia State University in Atlanta nearly 20 years ago. He described MARTA as being like a “gateway drug,” only one that encourage physical fitness. His walks to the station prompted longer walks — sometimes the four miles from downtown to his home.

“Then one day you see a guy with a bike on the train and you think about riding a bike,” the professor said. “The walking has kept me reasonably fit for a long time, just going to the station and back. I get caught in the rain sometimes but I’m a size 32 waist. I’ll tell you that.”