Getting from your home to your office and back again is a major part of daily life, but the act of commuting may be even more important than we realize. According to a new report, longer commutes may be detrimental to your health.
The report, which was commissioned by London-based charity The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), used UK census data and opinion polling to assess the travel habits of 24 million commuters in England and Wales. The researchers found that the majority of workers have "passive" commutes (think sitting on a train as opposed to walking or biking). This group is also spending a significant amount of time getting from point A to point B: In 2013, it took English and Welsh residents an average of 56 minutes to get to work each day, making theirs one of the longest commutes in the world.
"For some of us the daily commute can be a pleasurable experience, giving time for reflection or an opportunity to relax," Shirley Cramer, chief executive of RSPH, said in a statement on the charity's site. "But for an increasing number of us it is having a damaging effect on our health and wellbeing."
You probably already know that "active" commutes like walking or biking are better for your body and your mind—they've been linked to improved mood, weight loss, and a lower risk of heart disease. But what's so bad about taking a bus or train to the office?
According to the RSPH report, a non-active commute can be harmful in a number of ways. For one, there's the added stress of traveling. Of the 1,500 commuters polled, the majority said stress was a major issue for them. Delays, overcrowding, uncomfortable temperatures, and a long journey were some of the frustrations they listed as detrimental to their well-being.
A longer commute may also lead to weight gain. Almost 38% of people polled said they had less time to prep healthy meals at home. And one in four commuters said that the food and drinks available in transportation centers led them to purchase more fast food items and unhealthy snacks. Workers estimated that because of their commute, they were consuming an average of 767 additional calories a week.
And of course, sitting in a car or on a train or bus leaves less time for exercise. Forty-one percent of commuters reported reduced physical activity, which can contribute to a higher body mass index and elevated blood pressure levels.
While walking or biking to work isn't an option for everyone, experts say non-active commuters can employ a few smart strategies to make their trips a little healthier. If you take public transportation, Health's medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, recommends standing rather than sitting, and getting off a stop or two early. "Walking the rest of the way is a good way to get more activity in," she says. "Same with parking further from your destination."
Practicing stress-reduction techniques during your commute can also help. "Try using meditation tapes, listening to soothing music, or deep breathing," Dr. Raj says.
When it comes to meals, Health's contributing nutrition editor, Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, suggests planning ahead. "Many who eat on the way [to work] munch mindlessly," she says. "The distraction can lead to overeating."
She recommends eating a relaxed breakfast at home before you start your commute, like chilled egg salad tossed with mashed avocado, or muesli with Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. (Both can be prepped the night before to save time.)
Another option: "Split" your morning meal in half by having something small, like a portion of oats and nuts, before you begin your journey. Then once you're at the office, have some hard boiled eggs and veggies.
Sass adds that what you eat first thing in the morning can influence your mood and energy levels for the rest of the day, so it's crucial to consume a nutrient-rich breakfast. "For many of my clients, adopting a whole foods breakfast has been transformative," she says. "They feel better able to handle the stress of a commute and eat healthfully for the rest of the day."