If someone told you their journey to work took them one hour, how would you react?
Would you envy the brevity of their commute, nod in agreement with mutual respect, or retract in horror at the thought of losing so much of the day?
The majority of commuters living in England and Wales would nod in agreement as the two countries face some of the longest commutes globally, according to a new report (PDF) by the Royal Society of Public Health.
The average commute time across both countries reached 56 minutes in 2013, with the majority of people spending this time on trains and buses, or inside cars. But, more importantly, spending these extended periods of time in transit can be harmful to your health.
According to the report, average commuters in the UK feel they add almost 800 calories to their weekly diet because of what they consume during and because of the commute.
“There is a noticeable decline in health and well being if you have a longer commute,” said Emma Lloyd, policy and research manager at the RSPH, who wrote the report.
“Commuting is a highly stressful experience,” she said, adding that poor health is further fueled by factors such as reduced physical activity leading to increased BMI and blood pressure, and less time for healthy eating, physical activity, being sociable and sleeping.
Londoners faced the longest commute, averaging 79 minutes to reach their workplace, putting them ahead of all US cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
The RSPH warn that issues such as cost and convenience have been prioritized when it comes to commuting culture, while public health aspects have been neglected. “We mustn’t forget the health and wellbeing angle,” said Lloyd.
Commute times were based on data from the Office for National Statistics, but an additional poll of 1,500 commuters by the RSPH identified some of the reasons why commuters are becoming less healthy. More than half of people feel more stressed as a result of their commute, while 44% said they spent less time with family and friends, and 41% reported doing less physical activity. Approximately one-third reported sleeping less, as well as snacking more and eating more junk food.
It’s now time for some change, researchers said.
“There is an appetite for it,” said Lloyd. “The public are frustrated, too, and want a less stressful commute.”
What can change?
The RSPH report includes a range of recommendations to help solve the problem and create a happier, healthier culture for commuters in England and Wales. These include employers embracing the connectivity available today to enable staff to move away from the rigid 9-to-5 working day and have more flexible working hours to reduce overcrowding at peak times of travel.
Almost three in five (58%) people who were polled felt that flexible working hours would improve their health and wellbeing.
Other recommendations include providing more seating on services, or removing first-class cabins on trains to free up more seats and make people’s journeys more comfortable — and less stressful — as well as reducing the availability of unhealthy and fast food along transport routes. “There are many initiatives that could be introduced and many of them are simple,” said Lloyd.
“The foodscape observation of what you encounter is something that should be looked at,” said David Ogilvie, program leader at the UKCRC Center for Diet and Activity Research at the MRC epidemiology unit at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in producing the report. The report notes that some stations have become destinations for shopping or dining, not just spots to catch a train.
“People do spend time in this environment and what’s on offer is not always in people’s best interest,” Ogilvie said.
As franchise deals at stations come up for renewals, Lloyd hopes the government and train companies take into account the need for more healthy vendors.
An active commute
Ogilvie’s research focuses on the potential for physical activity in someone’s daily commute. “Many of us find it difficult to find time for physical activity in our free time,” he said. “This report identified the value of an active commute.”
Active commuting has received a lot of attention in recent years, to move people away from cars and trains and onto bikes — or simply their feet.
“First and foremost, we need to get people adopting a more active commute,” said Lloyd, but added that this isn’t an option for everyone — such as the million traveling tens of miles to reach their office.
“For a lot of people that may be unrealistic, but they may benefit from the incidental activity,” said Ogilvie. His research recently found that when people stop using their car and commute either by walking, cycling or even on public transport, their BMI tends to go down. “Most people using public transport will have some physical activity on either side of the transport,” he said.
Ogilvie added that more measures need to be put in place to reduce the cost of getting public transport, which pushes people back to their cars, as well as options to store bikes on trains so people can cycle on either side of their journey.
“Commuting is something many of us have to do every day,” he said. “The more we can do to make that health promoting, the better.”