A study in The Lancet has provided evidence that people who cycle or walk to work have lower body fat percentage and body mass index in mid-life than those who drive. People who travelled by public transport also showed reductions in BMI and body fat compared with those who commuted only by car.
The study looked at data from 150,000 people in the UK between 40 and 69, and is the largest to date to analyse the health benefits of active transport.
The top difference was between cyclists and drivers. The average male cyclist, the study found, was five kilograms lighter than the average driver. For the average female cyclist the difference was 4.4kg. Walking showed the next greatest weight difference, followed by public transport.
The link between active commuting and BMI was independent of other factors such as income, area deprivation, urban or rural residence, education, alcohol intake, smoking, general physical activity, and overall health and disability.
Analysis by McCrindle Research in 2014 found that almost two-thirds of workers (65.5 per cent) commuted to work by car.
The authors of the report said there were significant public health benefits that could be realised by incentivising more active travel.
“We found that, compared with commuting by car, public transport, walking and cycling, or a mix of all three, are associated with reductions in body mass and body fat percentage, even when accounting for demographic and socioeconomic factors,” London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine lecturer Dr Ellen Flint said.
“Many people live too far from their workplace for walking or cycling to be feasible, but even the incidental physical activity involved in public transport can have an important effect,” she said.
Dr Flint said physical inactivity was one of the leading causes of ill-health and premature mortality, and “encouraging public transport and active commuting, especially for those in mid-life when obesity becomes an increasing problem, could be an important part of the global policy response to population-level obesity prevention”.
In a comment piece on the study, Sogndal and Fjordane University College’s Dr Lars Bo Andersen said active transport could be a good exercise option for those who didn’t do other physical activity.
“Many people are not attracted to recreational sports or other leisure time physical activities, which are proven to benefit health, and active transport might therefore be an important and easy choice to increase physical activity and the proportion of people achieving recommended levels of physical activity,” he said.
“Physical activity during commuting has health benefits even if its intensity is moderate and the commuting does not cause high heart rate and sweating.”