Fitness: It’s time to consider an active commute

Before starting up your commute where you left off, consider changing out the car or public transportation for a more active alternative.

The Montreal Gazette 4 minute read August 22, 2021

With more people heading back to the office, it’s time to re-think our daily commute. Getting commuters to change their routine prior to the pandemic was darn near impossible. But after 18 months of going for a bike ride or walk during what used to be the daily commute, the prospect of being stuck in traffic or trying to find a seat in a crowded bus or métro may be the impetus needed for change. So before starting up your commute where you left off, consider changing out the car or public transportation for a more active alternative.

A surprising number of Canadians have already made the switch from passive to active commuting. Comparing data from the 1996 and 2016 censuses for those who work and live in the city core (defined as the portion of the city within five kilometres of city hall), the proportion of active commuters has increased from 19 per cent to 47 per cent in Toronto, 16 per cent to 38 per cent in Montreal, 15 per cent to 38 per cent in Calgary, 17 per cent to 39 per cent in Vancouver and 22 per cent to 42 per cent in Ottawa-Gatineau.

During this same time period, however, the number of people working in the city core has decreased and the number of people working outside the city core has increased. Combined with the growing number of workers who live 25 km or more from the city centre, overall, the daily commute of Canadians has taken up an increasingly larger portion of the day, with Torontonians travelling the longest distances to work.

While some people value their public transit commute as a chance to read or catch up on emails, many consider travelling to and from work the most stressful part of the day. But a long commute is more than just an inconvenience. It steals valuable personal time at the beginning and end of the day, time that could be spent any number of ways other than behind the wheel or on public transit.

In contrast, commuters who walk or bike to work report lower levels of stress and are more likely to express satisfaction with their work/life balance. And then there are the health benefits. Active commuters are more likely to have lower BMI and a reduced risk of obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure. They also excel at getting in their weekly dose of exercise. Active commuters accumulate about 80 per cent of the recommended amount of weekly physical activity travelling to and from the office. In fact, the Global Advocacy for Physical Activity (GAPA) states that active travel is “the most practical and sustainable way to increase physical activity on a daily basis.”.In short, a switch to a more active form of commuting is an investment in your long-term health.

There’s also a benefit to the environment. The transportation sector responsible for about one-quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing the number of trips made by gas-powered vehicles has the potential to reduce the amount of pollutants in the air we breathe.

If you still can’t see yourself heading into the office by bike or on foot every morning, keep in mind that active commuting doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Cycling to and from work one or two days a week is a great way to ease into a new routine. And for anyone who’s daunted by the distance of the commute, consider combining public transportation with either cycling, walking or running. And there’s always the option of an electric bike, which speeds up the commute and lets you dial back the effort on those days when energy stores are low.

Figuring out the right blend of passive and active transportation comes down to evaluating the impact of four distinct variables: convenience, speed, cost and reliability. For people living in the city centre, walking or cycling typically scores high on all four considerations, which is why so many city dwellers opt for an active commute. Not to mention, many of Canada’s cities have improved their cycling infrastructure, with more dedicated bike lanes and bike-lending services, making active commuting easier than it was a decade ago.

For those who live in the suburbs, walking or cycling to work is likely to take longer and be less convenient than taking the car or public transportation. But with back-to-work protocols offering greater flexibility in the coming months, it’s a good time to see if your employer is amenable to setting up an environment that supports active travel. Whether that means flexibility in working hours, facilities to store gear and/or bikes and access to showers or places to change and tidy up after an active commute, the time is right for a conversation. The right commute is a vital part of establishing a new post-pandemic work/life balance that is good for your health and for the health of the environment.