In the 1953, Professor Jerry Morris and his colleagues published a ground-breaking study, finding that drivers of London's double-decker buses, compared to conductors, were more likely to have cardiovascular disease and die suddenly from blood clots in the heart. The bus drivers were sedentary throughout their shift, while the conductors were actively climbing up and down stairs during their shift.
As a follow-up, Morris found that postal workers, who walked and biked to deliver the mail, had fewer heart attacks than sedentary telephonists and other government workers.
In summary, conductors and postmen were realtively immune from coronary heart disease, which led to the conclusion that those with physically active jobs suffer less heart disease than those with sedentary jobs. This research is widely considered the origin of modern day physical activity and health research.5
So, here we are in our modern environment, where physically active jobs are far and few between. We have jobs that require us to be sedentary, and the subsequent health effects are substantial.
As a result, we now have a new field of study called 'Inactivity Physiology', which shows that sitting time has harmful cardiovascular and metabolic effects, independent of how physically active someone is.3
Researchers are now seeking ways to make jobs less sedentary, from sitting on stability balls to standing desks to treadmill desks.
What About the Commute to Work?
An area of the workday that is commonly overlooked is the commute to work. This is of personal interest to me, because I walk to work almost everyday, deliberately parking 15-minutes away from my office to enjoy a nice walk through Texas' largest azalea garden. I love it, as it lets me decompress, relieves stress, and gives me time to think and be thankful.
Also, previous research has shown that the commute to work might be an important factor of obesity. For example, self-reported time spent in the car, either as a passenger or driver, is positively associated with obesity – with an additional 1 hour per day in the car translating to a 6% odds of being obese.1
What About 'Actively' Commuting to Work?
A very large study (13,206 participants) recently found a correlation between how much one actively commutes to work (walk or bike) and their body mass index (BMI) - ratio of weight to their height. The researchers found that, on average, those who actively commuted to work were almost 11 pounds lighter.6
This study supports previous research that has found a similar, relationship of active commuting and lower BMI, alongside better aerobic fitness, cardiovascular health, and mental health.2,4
Unfortunately, this large study found that only 4.58% of the entire 13,206 participants reported walking or biking to work for at least one leg of their commute!
However, residents of principal cities in the US were more than twice as likely to walk or bike to work (8.25%), compared to residents in counties surrounding these areas (3.21%).
Many Americans have sedentary jobs, and physical inactivity has been shown to negatively effect our health. Actively commuting to work, such as biking and/or walking, has been promoted as a way to combat the work-related time spent being inactive.
There is now suggestion that few people actually commute to work, but those who do, a fairly substantial relationship is found between active commuting and BMI – those who commuted more, also weighed less.
So, those who actively commute might very well see some benefit on their body weight (and health), but more research is needed to conclude there is a direct effect. This will be an interesting topic of discussion in the years to come. Stay tuned, and wear a helmet.
- Frank, L. D., Andresen, M. A., & Schmid, T. L. (2004). Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(2), 87-96.
- Gordon-Larsen, P., Boone-Heinonen, J., Sidney, S., Sternfeld, B., Jacobs, D. R., & Lewis, C. E. (2009). Active commuting and cardiovascular disease risk: the CARDIA study. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(13), 1216-1223.
- Hamilton, M. T., Healy, G. N., Dunstan, D. W., Zderic, T. W., & Owen, N. (2008). Too little exercise and too much sitting: inactivity physiology and the need for new recommendations on sedentary behavior. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 2(4), 292-298.
- Ohta, M., Mizoue, T., Mishima, N., & Ikeda, M. (2007). Effect of the physical activities in leisure time and commuting to work on mental health. Journal of Occupational Health, 49(1), 46-52.
- Paffenbarger, R. S., Blair, S. N., & Lee, I. M. (2001). A history of physical activity, cardiovascular health and longevity: the scientific contributions of Jeremy N Morris, DSc, DPH, FRCP. International Journal of Epidemiology, 30(5), 1184-1192.
- Wojan, T. R., & Hamrick, K. S. (2015). Can walking or biking to work really make a difference? Compact development, observed commuter choice and body mass index. PLOS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130903