Lifestyle and exercise

Being sick of the daily commute could be affecting your health

"Why your commute is killing you: stressful rush-hour journeys are shortening commuters' lifespans," The Sun reports after the Royal Society for Public Health published a report arguing that commuting can negatively impact both physical and mental health.

The report highlights research that suggests non-active commuting – not walking or cycling to work – is detrimental to our health.

The research indicates it can increase how many unhealthy foods we eat, impact our mental health and raise blood pressure, among other things.

The issue of commuter health is arguably more important than ever because of the increasing number of people who have to commute.

As the report points out, there are now 24 million regular commuters in England and Wales, with the average commute lasting 56 minutes a day.

Not only does commuting increase snacking habits, it also means we have less free time available to lead an active, healthy lifestyle.

To combat this trend, the report calls for the public to cycle or walk to work where possible. They recommend employers adopt a flexible working policy to allow more people to work from home or travel to and from work at different times.

Transport companies are also called upon to increase healthier food options in stations, put on more trains, get rid of first class carriages to increase seating capacity, and advise travellers of train capacity to enable them to plan their journeys at less stressful times.

Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in recognition of the substantial increase in the number of workers with long daily commutes to work.

The society is an independent charity dedicated to the improvement of public health and wellbeing.

In England and Wales 90% of the workforce commutes to work, spending an average of 56 minutes travelling, rising to 79 minutes in London.

The benefits of active travel, such as cycling and walking to work, are well known, yet the majority of commuters opt for passive travel, commuting by car, bus or train – often out of necessity rather than choice.

The report is not a systematic review, so there may have been evidence that contradicted its views that was overlooked. That said, it would be surprising if there was a large body of evidence outlining how rush hour commuting is good for us.

What evidence did they look at?

Evidence was gathered from a variety of sources, including the Office for National Statistics, examining wellbeing, length of commute and type of commute.

The British Household Panel Survey similarly looked at commuting information and measured self-reported health status.

Opinion polls were undertaken by the Royal Society for Public Health themselves, and The Work Foundation surveyed respondents on their work pattern preferences.

What were the main findings?

The main findings were that health status, level of happiness and satisfaction were lower for people who had longer commutes. These people were also more likely to go to their GP.

People who travel by bus or coach had lower levels of life satisfaction and less sense that their daily activities are worthwhile than those travelling by car, while those taking the train had higher levels of anxiety.

In a poll of 1,500 people, 55% said they felt more stressed as a result of their commute and 41% did less physical activity.

Commuters felt their journey contributed an average additional 767 calories – the equivalent of around three Big Macs – to their diet each week from food and drink outside regular meals, and 33% said they snacked more.

The factors impacting health the most were found to be:

  • length of commute
  • uncomfortable temperatures
  • anti-social behaviour
  • overcrowding
  • journey delays

What recommendations did the report make?

The report recommends that commuters engage in active travel where possible, enabling them to build physical activity into their daily routine.

One way of increasing the time workers spend on health-promoting activities is to move towards a flexible home working culture, away from the nine to five.

In recent years the number of organisations allowing employees to work from home has hugely increased, and it's estimated this will be the norm for more than half the workforce by 2017.

This trend needs to continue, says the report, as research shows it is beneficial for both the health and wellbeing of staff, as well as productivity.

But for some workers, flexible working may not be possible – for example, those who work in people-facing roles.

For those who still have to travel at rush hour, transport companies have a role to play in improving the health and wellbeing of their customers and decreasing stress, the report states.

The report says station design guidelines should introduce health and wellbeing as a key consideration for their retail and catering facilities. This could help cut down the extra calories consumed by commuters.

It advises that overcrowding must be tackled to minimise commuters' stress levels. The report recommends publishing crowding levels on train and bus services, empowering commuters to plan their journeys.

The report also calls for longer platforms and more frequent services. And it argues that first class carriages should be abolished, as these are often half empty while the rest of the train is full.


The report does make for interesting reading, especially as more of us are commuting than ever before.

There are steps you can take to factor in a DIY fitness programme as part of your daily routine:

  • Get off a bus or tube stop before your destination.
  • If you need to drive, try to park further away from your office and walk the rest of the way.
  • Discuss project ideas with a colleague while taking a walk.
  • Stand while talking on the telephone.
  • Walk over to someone's desk at work rather than calling them on the phone or sending an email.
  • Take the stairs instead of the lift, or get out of the lift a few floors early and use the stairs.
  • Walk up escalators or travelators rather than standing still.
  • Go for a walk during your lunch break – use a pedometer to keep track of how many steps you take.

And downloading some podcasts on to your smartphone ahead of time can keep you distracted during your commute, which may help reduce your stress levels.

NHS Attribution