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Soaring Gas Prices May Encourage Better Health

John-David Kato, DC, MSc, ACSM-RCEP, CSEP-CEP. Sept 17, 2008.

Gas prices soared across Canada last week even before hurricane Ike hit Texas. In Toronto gas jumped about 15 cents and is now about $1.38/liter at the pumps. This rise has annoyed some people and panicked others. Over the last several months, the higher gas prices has affected not only the cost to drive your car but has also affected air travel, and public transportation within the city. Furthermore food prices have crept up because much of our food is shipped from far away places.

However the scare of gas prices has started to have a positive effect on how people live their lives. People are choosing more fuel-efficient cars. Many in Ontario are considering moving back to Toronto to eliminate long commutes to work. And a slow shift away from personal automobiles means more walking, and more cycling rather than driving.

Although increasing fuel prices are obviously negative and bad for business, it may ultimately have a positive effect on health in the long run. Perhaps in North America we will see long term changes in physical activity (and perhaps eating habits) if fuel costs remain elevated. History shows us that change in the economy can influence the health of a population in a positive way.

An interesting article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined vital statistics of Cubans during their economic crisis in the 1990's. Hard economic times ultimately resulted in a lower mortality in the population. It all started with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960's that resulted in the US economic embargo on Cuba. Later in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union removed it as a major trading partner with Cuba. These two events lead to an economic crisis known as the “Special Period”. This crisis worsened over the next 5 years to 1995 cutting Cuba's economic production in half. Foreign trade shriveled 80% of what it once was. The widespread results included less supply of fuel, farming products and food items.

The shortage in the food-rationing system reduced the food intake of the general population over several years. Also a lack of public transportation resulted in a growth of the number of people walking and cycling.

Specifically, before the Special Period the average caloric intake, which is the amount of energy from food consumed, was about 2899 calories per day. During the Special Period in 1993 this number was about thousand calories less, basically a 35% reduction. Moreover, the number of physically active people went from 30% to more than doubling at 70% in the same time frame. Thus the average Cuban would have experienced a more physically active lifestyle, had an increase in physical fitness, a reduction in dietary fat intake and a moderate amount of weight loss over several years. An example given in the article indicated that someone who was about 174 cm (5'8”) tall would have lost about 10 pounds over the course of 4-8 years.

So what do these numbers mean, well these changes resulted in amazing health benefits to the Cuban population. Obesity rates dropped 50%; mortality from diabetes dropped 50%; mortality from heart disease dropped 35%; and mortality from stroke dropped 18%.

In conclusion, oftentimes money motivates people to change. The increasing gas and food costs in North America right now could be seen as an opportunity for better choices resulting in better health. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke are widespread problems that can be reduced by lifestyle changes. The crisis in Cuba's Special Period was rather extreme but it demonstrated that positive changes in lifestyle on a population can have profound effects to public health. So next time you want to head to the store to pick up a few things, or the next time you want to go and meet a friend, consider going on foot or taking your bicycle instead of driving. It will not cost you anything at the pump, and you may be doing your body and your wallet a little good.

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