Commuting to work is a necessity for many of us. Are certain methods of commuting healthier than others? The Treated.com team decided to look into the pros and cons for your health, whether you drive, take the bus or train, walk or cycle to work.

A study by the University of West England found that the average one way commute lasts for 30 minutes, which has increased from 24 minutes over the last 20 years. This means we spend an hour of our day getting to and from work. However, as many as one in seven workers in England spend as long as two hours commuting on a daily basis. 

Is it better to drive to work?

Driving to work may seem like your best option. The UWE study showed that it is by far the most popular choice for commuters, with 54% opting to take their car - it’s your own way there and back, so you won’t stress over missing trains or buses. There’s no debate that it’s a comfortable way to travel, so you can relax on your way to work. It also removes the possibility of coming into contact with a heap of germs found on public transport as well as the illnesses other commuters carry. 

However, there are downsides to this method too. It can be stressful driving into work, particularly if you live far away from your workspace. A long commute, made worse by traffic, can raise your blood pressure before your working day has even begun. This means by the time you get to the office, your senses are already heightened. It can be expensive, and the financial aspects of being a car owner could cause you stress. A study by Metro’s Mentally Yours podcast and Toluna found that 77% of UK residents are stressed about money, and as many as 17% would describe themselves as “very stressed” about their financial situation. If your car breaks down, getting to work becomes more difficult, adding more strain to your mental wellbeing. 

Treated.com Clinical Lead, Dr Daniel Atkinson has highlighted the importance of getting enough exercise, especially if you work in an environment like an office. “Being sat for long periods of the day puts you at risk of developing a number of health issues like strain, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.”

The 2017 study conducted by the University of West England determined that car commuters experience a higher level of stress and have a more negative mood than their counterparts who travel by train. If you typically drive to work but are thinking of switching to walking, cycling or public transport, you’ll feel the health benefits - statistically, those who decide to leave the car behind find their body mass index (BMI) decreases. 

Is it better to take the bus to work?

Taking the bus gives you some time to clear your head before a busy day at work. It does mean you’re just as likely to experience traffic issues, affecting your stress levels although these issues may be reduced by bus lanes. It’s more than likely that using the bus will elongate your journey due to the number of stops. To accommodate this, you would have to wake up and leave for work earlier. It’s important to ensure you get enough sleep so your brain can function properly and so you don’t rely on sugary snacks and caffeine to get through the day. 

It’s no secret that public transport can be unreliable. Dr Daniel Atkinson noted that, “there’s a lot that can affect your mental wellbeing and your blood pressure. Late bus services and full buses driving past you can be anxiety-inducing, whereas infrequent services leaving you with fewer options can make your journeys unpleasant.” 

With a vehicle carrying so many people, there’s more chance of you coming into contact with germs. Respiratory problems are six times more prevalent for commuters who use public transport. Coughs and sneezes are easy to spread, on handrails, stop buttons and in the air, plus dust and grime can get all over the seats, adding to your likelihood of contracting a virus. The good news is, if you commute everyday you will build an immunity to the bacteria over time.

Research has shown that those of us who travel to and from work on a bus have the strongest effects upon their mental well being. The impact of a longer commute affects a bus user more negatively than any other form of transport. It’s important for your job satisfaction that your commute is a pleasant one, and that your journey home isn’t eating too much into your leisure time. A drop in either can have serious repercussions for your mental well-being. 

Is it better to take the train to work?

Generally speaking, rail travel tends to be a lot quicker than by bus. If you work inner-city, it’s probably your best option in terms of convenience - you’ll be able to get in quickly without worrying about the traffic and it should be well connected, even in more rural areas. 

Your morning and evening commute gives you a chance to relax in and around your day. Some people use this time to check emails, or scroll through their social media feeds but this can have a negative effect on you. Social media has been described as being potentially more addictive than smoking or alcohol, so it’s easy to see how you can fill up those 30 minutes in the morning going through your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Excessive amounts of time spent on social media is problematic as the platforms set unrealistic expectations as well as creating a sense of missing out. 

Dr Daniel Atkinson explains that you can be affected by the things you cannot control on your commute. “Delays and cancellations to train services can lead to stress and anxiety as you become worried about being late to work or even stranded.” It can also be stressful when strikes occur if you have no other way to get into work and timetable changes have historically had an adverse effect on commuters. 

Morning and evening trains are often incredibly busy with fellow commuters so you can struggle to make your train because of the congestion, or come face to face with a host of germs. Standing the whole way home, pushed up against a number of other people can be unpleasant, stress-inducing and can exacerbate issues like back and neck pain. Research has shown that trains have levels of bacteria that are almost 14,000 higher than the average kitchen. The levels reach their peak in winter and could cause illnesses like chest infections, pneumonia and skin infections. 

The University of West England’s study into commuting found that longer commute times meant that passengers felt more strain - particularly evident in drivers and rail users. The National Rail Passengers Survey Main Report for Spring 2019 found that train commuters were unhappy with the services offered by Great Northern, South Western Railway, Northern, Greater Anglia and Southeastern. The report takes into account factors such as frequency of trains on that route, cleanliness on the inside of the train and the level of crowding. Using a sub-par service every day can have a negative affect on your mental wellbeing and you could dread your commute.

Is it better to cycle to work?

UWE’s study found that those who cycle to work have a higher self-reported health, so they are feeling the benefit of taking their bike to the office. “If your commute isn’t attainable by walking but you’d rather not drive to work everyday, cycling can bridge the gap,” Dr. Daniel Atkinson commented. “You’ll make it through traffic quicker and many cities will have dedicated cycle lanes so you can get around safely. It’s an easy way to get some exercise every day!” 

According to Cycling UK, cycling to work is linked with a 45% lower risk of developing cancer than commuting by public transport like buses and trains as well as by car. Those who regularly cycle to work take less time off work sick too compared to their colleagues who don’t cycle. Typically, cycling is believed to burn around five calories per minute, but this will fluctuate depending on your weight, height and age. Many companies have cycle to work schemes, so you can save money on your bicycle. 

Like every commuting option, there are cons to cycling too. You’ll be much more exposed to the elements on your bicycle. Wind, rain or shine - you’ll have little more than a jacket or coat to protect you and this may mean you’re more likely to get ill. Whilst cycle lanes are becoming more popular, they aren’t an option everywhere so you’ll need to be much more careful weaving through traffic.  

A study conducted by bikeparts.co.uk, utilising data from the Department of Transport, shows that the mean number of cyclist casualties (in 2017) were 1666, however the likelihood of being injured while cycling is 170% higher in London. The most common specific contributory factor in the accidents included entering the road from the pavement, wearing dark clothing and weather conditions making the road slippery. 

Is it better to walk to work?

Walking to work is a great way to commute. Taking your time in the morning to get some fresh air will allow you to clear your head before you get into work. The University of West England found that those who walked to work had the shortest commute compared to those on the train, buses, cycling or driving to work. Typically, their commute is 14 minutes one way, with 11% of the sample walking. The study also found that walking - as well as cycling - increase leisure time satisfaction. 

Walking and Cycling Statistics for England in 2018 showed people walked an average of 210 miles, walking further distances and more often in the last three years. Almost all local authorities that took part in the research reported that at least 60% of their adult population were walking at least once a week. 

Being able to walk into work is an amazing thing but it isn’t attainable for everyone. Walking to and from your workplace would mean living relatively nearby to keep your commute time low - otherwise, you’re eating into your leisure time. Those who work miles away from home wouldn’t be able to manage to walk every day; if you lived in a more rural area, it could be dangerous to walk along country paths due to the lack of light and increased risk of being hit by a vehicle. 

Just like those who cycle into work, walking commuters have to brave the elements every day. As the winter months roll in, you’re more likely to be cold to and from work, as well as the added danger of walking when it’s dark. Getting caught up in the rain or the snow will leave you dripping as you get into your workplace - leaving you susceptible to a workplace injury. The Health and Safety Executive found that 555,000 injuries occurred at work, with 71,062 injuries to employees were reported under RIDDOR. HSE learned that 30.7 million working days are lost due to workplace injury and work-related illness. 

“Walking to work is great exercise but you should be careful when carrying heavy bags as it can lead to strain and back problems,” Dr Daniel Atkinson stated. “Developing back injuries could lead to spending more time with your GP.” The UWE study found that longer commutes are associated with poorer health and more GP visits.

So what does this mean? 

Each method of commuting has its benefits and disadvantages for your health. It’s difficult to be immune to picking up illnesses no matter how you travel to work, and a longer commute will take its toll on your mental wellbeing. Each person is different, and options for commuting may be limited.

Variety is the spice of life, and Dr Daniel Atkinson sees the value in using different options. “Mixing up your commuting methods will be good for your mental health to get some variety and a change of surroundings. Switch up between walking, driving and taking the train to keep your brain engaged and to maintain your mental wellbeing.”

Walking or cycling can help to keep you fit and healthy, lowering your BMI and gets your heart working. Physical exercise in the morning and the evening is key, particularly if you are sat down for the majority of your day. If you are able to switch to walking or cycling, you’ll feel the benefits for your mental wellbeing as well as your general health.