Background Physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and is an important factor in healthy weight maintenance. However, overall levels of physical activity have declined in the developed world, and tackling obesity is a public health priority. Active commuting is thought to be a particularly effective way of getting exercise, as walking and cycling are easily adopted and likely to be maintained as part of one’s daily routine. In addition to improving cardiovascular health and fitness, greater uptake of active travel has been shown to reduce air and noise pollution, traffic congestion and CO2 emissions.
Methods Using data from Understanding Society Wave 2, this study investigates the extent to which active commuting predicts four objectively measured health outcomes: body mass index (BMI); percentage body fat; lung function; and blood pressure. Commuting mode was defined using three categories designed to capture increasing levels of physical activity: private transport (car, motorcycle, taxi); public transport (bus, train, etc); active transport (walking or cycling). The analytic sample was restricted to those who worked outside of the home and had complete data for commuting mode and biological measurements (n = 3352 men; n = 4103 women). Gender-stratified nested multivariate linear regression analyses were utilised, in order to adjust for the following hypothesised confounding covariates: age, age2, distance travelled, limiting illness or disability, occupational social class, work-related physical activity level, participation in sporting activity and diet quality.
Results In the age-adjusted analyses, compared with using private transport; public transport and active transport were associated with lower BMI for men (public transport: b -1.1, p < 0.001; active transport: b -0.9, p = 0.002) and women (public transport: b -0.6, p = 0.05; active transport: b -0.6, p = 0.01). Adjustment for all other hypothesised confounders did not greatly attenuate this association for men (public transport: b -1.0, p < 0.001; active transport: b -0.7, p = 0.016) or for female active travellers (public transport: b -0.6, p = 0.09; active transport: b -0.9, p = 0.001). Similar results were found for percentage body fat. Findings for blood pressure and lung function varied by gender and told a more complex story.
Conclusion The results from this investigation corroborate findings from other studies in suggesting that incorporating a greater level of physical activity into the commute may help individuals maintain a healthy weight and body composition. The use of biomeasure outcomes in a large, nationally representative sample increases our confidence in the robustness of these findings.