Published: 15th JANUARY 2020

The health benefits of an active commute

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 commuting more actively.

people walking and on bikes using traffic free path

The Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge 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% respectively. Walking and cycling also reduce risk factors for diseases such as cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and Type II diabetes.

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 pollution. 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 anxiety.

Despite the health benefits of being physically active, 35% of Scottish adults do not reach the recommended levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity. 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 sector.

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%).

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 has been recorded as a method of travel). 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 activity.

The Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge is an innovative way to help the Scottish workforce build physical activity into 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.

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