According to a major new study, there are ways to make your journey to and from work less miserable.
Generally speaking, commuting is… not fun. I used to get a train to work that had no ventilation and no windows that could be opened, so that the air felt like a cross between a rainforest and a gym changing room. Then I began taking the Tube, but gave it up for good during this summer’s heatwave (turns out there are some things I really can’t handle, and one of those things is standing on a crowded underground platform in 30°C heat). Nowadays, I get a bus that crawls across the city at a snail’s pace, often coming to a standstill for 10 minutes at a time while I glance anxiously at the time on my phone, wondering just how late I’m going to be.
I’m not the only one who dreads their journey to work. Extensive research has found that a bad commute can wreak havoc on our emotional and physical wellbeing, with one report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) showing that 55% of people feel more stressed as a result of travelling to their job. Earlier this year, meanwhile, a study of more than 34,000 British employees across all UK industries found that people with long commutes are 33% more likely to suffer from depression, and less likely to get the recommend seven hours of sleep each night.
But according to another major new study, there are ways to ease the strain that commuting puts on our mental health. The research, led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), looked at the commuting patterns of almost 3,600 people from four cities across Europe: Barcelona, Doetinchem in the Netherlands, Kaunas in Lithuania and Stoke-on-Trent in the UK.
Researchers found that respondents who commuted through natural environments on a daily basis reported better mental health than those who didn’t – and that this correlation was seen even more strongly among people who engaged in ‘active’ commuting, such as walking or cycling.
For the purposes of the study, natural environments were defined as any public or private outdoor spaces that contained ‘green’ and/or ‘blue’ elements, such as street trees, canal paths, city parks or river walks.
And the ‘quality’ of the natural environments in which the commuting took place didn’t make a difference – meaning that you’re likely to feel an improved mood whether you’re trudging through your local crisp packet-littered park or strolling through a verdant forest.
“From previous experimental studies we knew that physical activity in natural environments can reduce stress, improve mood and mental restoration when compared to the equivalent activity in urban environments,” said Wilma Zijlema, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study.
“Although this study is the first of its kind to our knowledge and, therefore, more research will be needed, our data show that commuting through these natural spaces alone may also have a positive effect on mental health.”
Watch: Things never said on your commute
Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to be able to cycle through a bluebell wood on our way to work. But one of the good things about living in the UK is that most of our cities have relatively easy access to greenery and natural spaces, in a way that urban areas in many other countries really don’t.
So while you might not be able to transform your entire commute into a trek through nature, chances are you can swing through a park en route to the office – or even just take a detour down a particularly leafy street.
Give it a go: it definitely won’t make your commute any worse. And if you really can’t change your trip to make it more blue and/or green-toned, try reading these uplifting poems to cheer up your journey – or consult our passive-aggressive guide to dealing with a hellish commute.
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