Whether you walk, cycle, take public transportation, or drive your way to work, most people dread their morning commute that adds up to 25.5 minutes each way for the average American. UK researchers from the University of London weighed out the benefits of commuting to work and published their findings in The British Medical Journal on Tuesday.

Health repercussions, both good and bad, come from commuting, but research has proven time and again when people drive to work every day, they tend to gain more weight than those who choose an alternative route. There’s a significant difference in the health between commuters who weave their way through traffic and those who hitch a ride on the subway line. What is it about driving for hours every day through traffic that harms our physical and mental health?

Researchers analyzed 7,534 participants from the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study and found correlations with how they commute to work and their body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage. A large majority of men and women commute to work through private motor vehicle transportation, with a total of 76 percent of men, and 72 percent of women, respectively. Compare that to the 10 percent of men and 11 percent of women who report using public transportation on a daily basis, and it starts to make sense how the country is experiencing an obesity epidemic and environmental crisis with carbon monoxide pollution from vehicles.

Women who commuted through any mode of transportation besides a private vehicle had a BMI score 0.7 lower than drivers, and they weighed 5.5 pounds less than the average woman. Non-car commuting men were an entire 1.0 lower than their counterparts and weighed 6.6 pounds less than the average man. BMI is a commonly used scale to evaluate the health range a man or woman falls into depending on their height and weight. Generally, a person with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is within healthy range, while a person lower than 18.5 indicates they’re underweight and any number above 25 indicates a person may be overweight, and above 30 indicates obesity.

Aside from commute-related weight gain, traffic can be stressing, your neck can be straining, and you’re stuck in a seated position that can be hurting your spine. Driving just 10 miles or more each way to work is associated with high blood sugar and high cholesterol, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. High blood glucose levels can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes. Those same commuters are also more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and social isolation, along with lower levels of cardiovascular fitness and physical activity.

Commuting by car may be faster and easier than grabbing a bike or aligning your schedule up with the local bus route, but it's the long-term health risks commuters must keep in mind. The short-term oftentimes does not outweigh the long-term risks and benefits, especially when convenience comes into play. If you work over an hour away, try going for a 10-minute walk or run to clear your mind and prepare your body for the sedentary ride you have ahead of you. Before you head home from work, find a gym at your mid-way point and release some tension and awaken your muscles with 30 to 60 minutes of well-deserved exercise.

Researchers said the differences between people who drove their car every day and people who took alternative routes, were "larger than those seen in the majority of individually focused diet and physical activity interventions to prevent overweight and obesity." If communities and cities made alternative routes more accessible for commuters to get to work each day, obesity prevention campaigns could encourage people to choose healthier routes. "It is crucial that the public health community, including health care professionals, provide strong and consistent messages to politicians and the public, which frame these measures as positive public health actions," researchers said.  

Obesity has rapidly plagued the world over the last 30 years, and although intervention strategies are being implemented in small ways every day, there are still 34.9 percent of obese American adults living today and a growing number of obese children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walking, cycling, and public transportation "should be considered as part of strategies to reduce the burden of obesity and related health conditions,” the authors wrote. "[Further research] is required in order to confirm the direction of causality in the association between active commuting and body weight.”

Source: Sacker A. Associations between active commuting, body fat, and body mass index: population based, cross sectional study in the United Kingdom. The British Medical Journal. 2014.