A woman sat on the bus with a facemask on and her phone in her hand

All the health benefits of a commute, from moving more to being mindful

Posted by for Wellbeing

Use your commute to benefit your physical and mental health if you’re back in the office. 

When our working lives have been flipped on their head thanks to lockdown, most of us (other than key workers) ended up going from bed to work without anything in between. While you can’t glamorise being stuck underneath someone’s smelly armpit on a packed Tube, or stuck in traffic on an inner-city road, there were some good things about taking time to get to the office.

Now, many of us are commuting again – at least part of the week – so there’s no better time to remind ourselves of how to have a healthy commute.

More movement

Of course, there’s the extra step count, whether you’re walking the whole way into work or just to the train station. According to new figures by RunRepeat, returning to work has created a boom in exercise, even for those who exercised the least during lockdown. While this may be due to the fact that we get access to the gyms and classes that are close to our offices, it’s also because the commute itself gets people moving.

Active commutes have been shown to have huge health benefits: a 2020 paper published in The Lancet found that those who cycled to work had a 24% reduced rate of cardiovascular disease compared to those who commuted by car. Even for those who got the train, the risk was reduced by 21%. 

A woman cycling through a park
Cycling to work can improve cardiovascular health

Plus, a morning walk to the station or the office has a huge impact on the rest of your day: moving in the morning significantly increases your activity levels over the following 24 hours, according to a 2012 paper from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

“The pandemic-related event of returning to work in the office signals a return to normalcy,” says Nick Rizzo, the fitness research director at RunRepeat. “It brings a familiar structure, routine, and lifestyle for many. All of which seems to create a significant growth in exercise rates for the remote workers who were the least active during the pandemic.” 

It can support mental health

For many people, the commute is the only time they get alone. You might not feel that alone if you’re back on a busy bus, but it’s time in which you can do something for your mental health without (too much) distraction. “Many people use the commute as a time for mindful activities, whether they realise it or not,” says Dr Simrat Marwah, GP at the Chelsea Pharmacy Medical Clinic. “People use it to listen to their favourite radio show, sing along to their favourite music, catch up on phone calls in a way you just couldn’t if you were at home with a partner or a work distraction.”

The great thing about this is that you can reap the benefits even if you’re driving, says Dr Marwah. “For a lot of people, the benefits come from having a routine that involves getting them out of the house and away from their screens,” she adds. 

A woman on a train platform
Commuting can have social benefits - even if you don't talk to passengers.

There are social health benefits

Studies suggest that long commutes lead to reduced life satisfaction because they take time out of your day that could otherwise be spent being physically or socially active. While there’s no denying that the commute can take up time in the evening that you could otherwise be seeing friends or going to the gym, ask yourself: since lockdown began, what have you done with your now-hoarded commute time?

For many, the answer has been to work overtime. In lieu of spending time with actual friends, a commute is probably going to be better for you than spending an extra hour at your desk. “Even if you don’t talk to them, simply being around others is classed as a social interaction. That can be really good for your mental health, particularly after the year we’ve had,” says Dr Marwah. Just remember to social distance for your physical health, too. 

You’re in the daylight

“Simply being out of the house in the morning means you’re more exposed to the sun. That helps increase your vitamin D levels, which is crucial for the body and mind,” says Dr Marwah. “It’s also important to engage the brain with scenery and light that you wouldn’t otherwise have if you were sitting indoors.”

Plus, early morning daylight has a huge impact on your sleep cycle. Light exposure within an hour of waking sets your body clock for the day by spiking cortisol, which in turn allows melatonin to be released 12 hours later – ensuring you get sleepy around bedtime.

It can improve immunity

“Right now it’s clearly not great to be getting germs from other people. But generally being outside the house exposes you to different environmental factors and diversity that can help build your immunity back up. Unless we’ve come in touch with Covid, most of our immune systems haven’t been working as hard as we haven’t been exposed to different bacterias – we’ve literally been in isolation,” reminds Dr Marwah. 

How to get more from your commute

There’s no denying that pre-lockdown commutes were a thing of chaos. But now many of us get to redefine what our commutes mean to us. The obvious answer is to keep it as active as possible, even if that just involves swapping the car for the train.

Given that our working worlds have changed forever, hybrid working is something that can benefit many of us – allowing the freedom and time to prioritise our own healthy habits, be it socialising or gymming, while also getting out of the house and into active routines. Plus, it means that your chosen commuting path is hopefully less busy and stressful so you can make it more mindful. While many of us don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to commuting or not, at least you know that you can use your time to feel better. 

Images: Getty

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

Recommended by Chloe Gray