The health benefits of an active commute

By Guest Blogger,
People walking and cycling to work

Walking and cycling to work can benefit physical and mental health

Kieran Turner, Research Assistant in the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre at The University of Edinburgh, summarises research on the benefits of building physical activity into your daily commute, and advocates taking part in the Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge as a fun initiative to encourage workers to start, and continue, commuting more actively.

The fourth annual Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge will take place from 1-31 March 2019. This interactive scheme encourages people working in Scotland to commute more actively and sustainably, whether by walking, cycling, using public transport or car-sharing, reducing the number of journeys they make individually by car. Commuting more actively can benefit both physical and mental health, in turn resulting in happier and more productive staff.

Health benefits

Aside from the prizes available throughout the Challenge, there are plenty of reasons to take part and to incorporate more activity into your commute. There are several well established physical health benefits resulting from being physically active. Research from the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre (PAHRC), at The University of Edinburgh, indicates that walking and cycling at current recommended levels (150 minutes per week at moderate to vigorous intensity) can achieve risk reductions in premature mortality of 11% and 10% respectively1. Walking and cycling also reduce risk factors for diseases such as cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and Type II diabetes2. Other recent research from PAHRC has focused on the relationship between health benefits achieved from active travel, and the harm caused by exposure to air pollution3. This research has shown that, apart from in the most extremely polluted environments, the health benefits attained from travelling actively far outweigh the harms caused by air pollution.

There is also growing interest around the mental health benefits that can be achieved from physical activity; recent PAHRC research shows there is evidence for the effectiveness of walking in preventing and treating depression and anxiety4. Despite the health benefits of being physically active, 35% of Scottish adults do not reach the recommended levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity5. Increasing rates of active commuting would likely contribute to more of the Scottish population achieving the recommended levels of physical activity. 

Environmental impact

As well as the substantial health benefits to be gained from building physical activity into our daily lives, there are also very important environmental implications resulting from how we travel. Recent figures for the UK (2017) reveal that the transport sector is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gases emissions, the most of any sector6. Whilst an overall reduction of nearly 42% in these emissions has been observed since 1990, the transport sector has contributed only a very small proportion of this overall reduction (2%)7.

Making the change

Immediate action is needed in moving people from private motorised vehicles to active modes of travel, from walking and cycling to using a ‘commuter scooter’ (even kayaking was recorded as a method of travel in last year’s Challenge!). For those journeys where active travel is not feasible, it is of vital importance that there are extensive and affordable public transport networks in place. Taking public transport itself allows for health benefits, as walking or cycling to and from bus stops or train stations can help you in reaching the recommended amount of physical activity8.

The Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge is an innovative way to help the Scottish workforce build physical activity in to their daily lives, and PAHRC will be watching its progress with interest!

Sign up for free to the Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge.

Find out more about the work of the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre.

1 Kelly, P., Kahlmeier, S., Götschi, T., Orsini, N., Richards, J., Roberts, N., ... & Foster, C. (2014). Systematic review and meta-analysis of reduction in all-cause mortality from walking and cycling and shape of dose response relationship. International journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 11(1), 132.

2 Public Health England. (2018). Cycling and walking for individual and population health benefits: A rapid evidence review for health and care system decision-makers. London.

3 Tainio, M., de Nazelle, A. J., Götschi, T., Kahlmeier, S., Rojas-Rueda, D., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. & Woodcock, J. (2016). Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?. Preventive Medicine, 87, 233-236.

4 Kelly, P., Williamson, C., Niven, A. G., Hunter, R., Mutrie, N., & Richards, J. (2018). Walking on sunshine: scoping review of the evidence for walking and mental health. Br J Sports Med, 52(12), 800-806.

5 Strain, T., Fitzsimons, C., Foster, C., Mutrie, N., Townsend, N., & Kelly, P. (2016). Age-related comparisons by sex in the domains of aerobic physical activity for adults in Scotland. Preventive medicine reports3, 90-97.

6 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. (2019). 2017 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions. London.

7 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. (2019). 2017 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions. London.

8 Besser, L. M., & Dannenberg, A. L. (2005). Walking to public transit: steps to help meet physical activity recommendations. American journal of preventive medicine, 29(4), 273-280.