Active commutes may improve heart health

25 May 2018

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Any activity on your daily commute, like walking to the bus instead of just hopping in the car, might reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, says a new study from the University of Cambridge, published in the journal Heart...

Every little bit helps, or so the saying the goes, and it turns out that may well apply to your trip to work. According to new research by Cambridge scientists Jenna Panter and Oliver Mytton, those who are active on their daily commute, even just a little, are 11% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and have a 30 % lower mortality rate, than more sedentary travelers.

The new study also stands out for another reason. Unlike previous research studies on this topic, which have largely just compared different modes of commute such as public transport vs. car vs. bike, the new investigation looks at individuals' commutes in a more fine-grained manner.

“We’ve compared people who exclusively used the car for travel with people who aren’t just relying on the car,” states Mytton. “They’re incorporating walking or cycling alongside public transport.”

The study used data from an archive called the UK Biobank. This is a massive health database launched in 2006, which enrolled 500,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69. These individuals gave blood and urine samples, and provided details about their health and lifestyles; they also agreed to be followed up logitudunally during their lifetimes so that data about health outcomes could also be collected.

This means that the Biobank serves as a critical resource for studies like this one, that are seeking to join the dots connecting lifestyle choices, the environment, and our health and disease risks.

It is important to note that the news study is just looking at outcomes. The team can’t say for certain that a more active commute is what causes a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

It’s possible that there are other unmeasured or "confounding" factors contributing to the observed effect. It’s possible, for instance, that people who eat a better diet are also the kind of people who will be more active and healthier. On the other hand, it’s also possible that people with underlying health conditions are, for whatever reason, unable to make their commute more active.

Nevertheless, Panter and Mytton emphasise that they have done their best to control for these factors, taking into account things like gender, age, location, and other possible health behaviours.

The role the environment plays in our lives is a key point in this study. For example, people who live in rural environments may be a long distance from work, and poorly served by public transport, and therefore would have no choice but to take the car.

According to Mytton, “one of the messages that comes out, to me, from this study, is that if we want to encourage people to be more active, we do need to look at how the environment influences their activity.”

“The simple message is, swapping your car for a more active pattern of travel can reduce your risk of heart disease and strokes,” says Mytton.

Put another way, if you can make it one bus stop further on foot each morning, it might well be worth it...

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