Tag Archives: Work

Want to be fit at forty? Don’t have a baby early!

Having a family early may not be good for your health later on. That was the conclusion of a team of researchers at the ESRC International centre for Lifecourse Studies when they looked at the interplay between the work and family lives of men and women, whose lives have been tracked over time in the 1958 Birth Cohort Study. But was it the same story for people born earlier and has it been the same for people who were born later? Dr Rebecca Lacey, who led the research, has been looking at the lives of thousands of adults in three Birth Cohort Studies to see whether the way their work and family lives intertwine impacts on the likelihood of them becoming overweight or obese later on.

In a recent blog for WorkLife, my colleague Anne McMunn outlined some of our research showing that, for both men and women, having children early, especially as a teenager, was closely linked with poorer health once they got into their forties.

Not only did the people we looked at for that piece of research have bigger waists, but they also had a great deal more fat circulating in their blood and less ‘good’ cholesterol, both of which are linked with a heightened risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Those findings stayed strong, even for young parents who had a job and were married, a clear indication that having children early on, with all the associated stresses and strains, seems to take a heavy toll on health over the life course.

For that piece of research, we looked only at people who had taken part in the National Child Development Study, also known as the 1958 Birth Cohort. For this research we looked, in addition at thousands more people, born in 1946 (National Survey of Health and Development) and another group born in 1970 (the British Cohort Study) whose lives had been tracked since birth.

Across cohorts

The reason for looking across cohorts was to see whether changes across generations in how we combine work and family (having children later, more cohabitation and less marriage, more women working etc.) have contributed in some way towards poorer health for some.

As with the earlier research, we made use of 12 specially created lifecourse types covering information on employment, partnerships and parenthood, such as ‘Work, Later family’ ‘Later family, Work break’, ‘Teen parent’.

Each individual in each birth cohort was ascribed a lifecourse type and this was then linked to their Body Mass Index (BMI) and how that changed over time. We went on to see how those figures differed between lifecourse types within and across the three cohorts. We used the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of overweight (BMI greater than or equal to 25) and obesity (BMI greater than or equal to 30).

In addition, we took a host of other factors including our participants’ socio-economic background, prior health and educational attainment into consideration.

We anticipated that, as our earlier research had shown, that people who worked less and had children earlier would show steeper increases in BMI and that across the three cohorts, those increases would become more pronounced.

Changing attitudes and behaviours

The distribution of lifecourse types across the three cohorts reflected, as we thought it would, changing attitudes and behaviours across generations, with increasingly more women in employment and early parenthood becoming less and less common.

In the 1946 cohort, the average BMI of a very small group of men who were ‘Teen parents’ increased from 20.3 to 26.76 between age 16-42, significantly more than any other work-family combination. The same was true for male teen parents in the 1958 cohort and also for those who worked and had a family early. In the 1970 cohort, men who had no children or had children later had BMI that increased significantly less than those who became parents earlier. The only exception to this was a group of men with no family and unstable work.

Another notable finding across all three cohorts was that average BMIs for men at age 42 in all of the work-family groups were higher than the WHO threshold for overweight. The only exception was men who had children later or no children at all.

For women in the 1946 study, there was no real difference between the groups when we looked at how their BMI increased between the ages of 16 and 42. The average BMI of the 1958 cohort women who had children early increased significantly more than that of women who had them later. Women in the 1970 cohort who did not work and had children early had the biggest BMI rise (6.69) with teen parents (6.31) close behind. The average BMI of the 42 year-old women in these two groups was on the WHO obesity threshold (30), with the average BMI for the remaining work-family groups all falling under the WHO definition of overweight (25 and above).

Other interesting things to emerge included:

  • BMI increased more for male teen parents than female in the 1970 cohort
  • Marriage seems to have particular health benefits for men
  • Divorce has greater negative health effects for men than women

Negative impact

This research reinforces what we found earlier, which is that for both men and women having children early (especially in your teens) no matter what your background, is likely to have a negative impact on your health in mid life, especially if you don’t have a job or if your work is irregular or unstable. Looking across three cohorts, we can also see that those differences have become more pronounced.

How to explain and better understand how all this plays out in the day to day lives of younger parents is a challenge. Having children early may disrupt someone’s education or career. Younger parents may also be more likely to smoke and drink and exercise less than their older counterparts, unhealthy behaviours which can become established early and set in across adulthood.

Whatever the context and the reasons, there are some important messages here for young people, prospective parents, health and education professionals as well as for Government; not least that decisions about how to combine work and family life, especially when to become a parent, may have long lasting ramifications for your health.

This research adds to a growing body of evidence which makes it clear that, as far as obesity is concerned, early intervention is key and that we need to consider the complex way in which our biological and social lives intertwine over time.

Further information

Work-family life courses and BMI trajectories in three British birth cohorts is research by Rebecca Lacey, Amanda Sacker, Steven Bell, Meena Kumari, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough, Diana Kuh, and Anne McMunn. It is published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Photo credit: Baby Fingers, Thomas

Reform and retirement: pension lessons from Finland

Pension reform is taking place in countries around the world. Governments, businesses and individuals have gradually come to terms with the fact that one of the consequences of us all living longer is that existing pension arrangements are unsustainable. As a result, millions of workers are being encouraged, nudged or, in some cases, forced to work longer. But what if reforms don’t work or have a different impact from that intended? Tarani Chandola from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies and University of Manchester has been analysing the complex interplay between pension reform and our health and their combined effect on the timing of retirement.

We all need to work longer and retire later! Those are the essential messages coming from Governments around the globe. Turning those messages into concrete change that can make pension systems sustainable, however, is no straightforward matter, especially when you take into account the health problems that older workers can face.

The combined impact of pension age policies and our health on our decision to retire and the complex way those things play out are not very well understood. Many people stop workingbecause or ill health or caring responsibilities. Changes in the age when people can claim their state pension, which is increasing in the UK, could deter people from retiring when they perceive they need or want to.

Our research took a close look at pension reforms introduced in Finland in 2005, where, in place of a fixed statutory retirement age of 65, workers were given the choice of retiring between the ages of 63-68. The central goal of the reform was to ensure the sustainability of the pension system and to promote longer working lives. To try to get more people retiring at the top end of that age range, financial incentives were introduced for those who opted to retire later.

We looked at people who retired before and after the reforms to see whether the changes to the system had the desired effect of getting people to work longer. We also wanted to see if people who opted for early retirement (between the ages of 63-64) tended to be in better or poorer health.

Health issues linked to retirement

Our research made use of information from the medical and retirement records of more than 20,000 men and women born over a 9 year period. As far as their health was concerned, we focused on issues most closely linked with retirement such as circulatory disease and bone and muscular problems like arthritis as well as mental health problems. We were also able to access records of the sorts and quantities of prescription medicines that people were taking in the run up to retirement.

Looking at the pre-reform group, there was a clear decreasing trend in retirement by age 63 and by age 64. Among the post-reform group, there was no clear trend, but each birth cohort was substantially more likely to have retired by the age of 64 than those in the pre-reform cohorts. In fact, workers subject to the new system were 50% more likely to retire age 63-64 than those in the old.

Slide1

Although retirement was generally more common among people with poorer health, as we thought would be the case, it was striking that the increased numbers of people retiring early in the post reform group tended to have better health.

In short, the reform encouraged more people to retire earlier. Those in poor health were just as likely as before to retire early, but among people with better circulatory, muscular, bone and mental health, retirement at 63-64 increased substantially. Even when we took a range of other factors into account, such as their social and economic circumstances and their education, their good health was a strong predictor of retirement.

Unintended consequences

A more flexible retirement age, in Finland’s case, has had the unintended consequence of encouraging more, not less people into early retirement. Many of those were people in good health, the sorts of workers who might have several healthy working years ahead of them – the sorts of people the Finnish Government would have hoped would retire later.

Further reform is already on the cards for Finland in 2017 and is likely to see the lower age of statutory retirement raised to 65 and after that linked to life expectancy.

Here in the UK, we have seen the raising of the State Pension Age to 67 for men and 65 for women with further changes slated for the future. Only time will tell if it has the desired effect of keeping people who otherwise might have retired earlier in work or whether other factors, such as an individual’s health will play a stronger role in those decisions.

Our study shows that, regardless of what is happening with pension reform and policy, those in poorer health are unlikely to be able to extend their working lives no matter what, something Governments everywhere need to build into their thinking about pension reform.

Further information

Health as a predictor of early retirement before and after introduction of a flexible statutory pension age in Finland is research by Taina Leinonen, Mikko Laaksonen, Tarani Chandola and Pekka Martikainen

Photo credit: United Soybean Board

Who works post State Pension Age?

Across Europe and indeed other parts of the world, we’re being told we need to work longer than in the past. The reason? We’re all living longer and pension systems everywhere are collapsing under the strain. But with age can come poorer health and reduced physical capabilities and what if doing our job is physically or mentally demanding? Raising the State Pension Age for this group of workers compared say with someone working in a less stressful job could end up creating pressure on specific disadvantaged groups, whilst favouring already advantaged groups. Morten Wahrendorf from the University of Dusseldorf and ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies has been investigating.

A number of Governments across Europe have already increased the state pension age beyond 65 and are actively looking to introduce incentives and measures that they hope will get more people of working age to retire later.

Quite a lot of research has looked at what things are going on in people’s lives that might lead them to retire early from work, but far fewer questions have been asked about what might lead to someone working beyond state pension age. What sorts of jobs do they tend to do? What are their working conditions like? How do those compare with people who retire earlier?

It’s important to get a grasp of this if we are to ensure that any changes made to the pension system are fair and just and that they don’t adversely affect specific or already disadvantaged groups.

Using information on nearly 18,000 men and women aged 65 and over from 16 European countries we were able to look into this in some depth and effectively compare prior working conditions of those people who retired early with current conditions of those who worked longer.

Work and conditions

Our information came from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). We looked at whether the participants were employed or not, their job (at the time of the survey and immediately before retiring), how long they had been doing their job, working hours and how stressful their job was.

In addition we looked at what the participants said about how much freedom they had at work, whether there were opportunities to develop new skills, whether their job was physically demanding or time-pressured and how supported and recognised they felt at work.

As far as survey participants’ health was concerned, we were able to see how they rated their own health, whether they were depressed, their quality of life, and how mentally and physically capable they were.

Workers better-off and better-educated

Of everyone we looked at in the study, 755 (4.3 per cent) were still working between the ages of 65 and 80. They tended, on average, to be better off and better-educated than those who had retired.

Those still working were three times as likely to be self-employed as our retired group, who were also less likely to have been in a managerial or professional job before retiring.

Those who had retired reported higher levels of stress in their last job, particularly when it came to how valued and supported they felt. They also had poorer health across the board on all the measures we looked at.

Figure 1. Prevalence of poor health by labour market situation among older men and women (aged 65 to 80 years) in percentage (n=17625

ICLS-health

These findings were still seen even after accounting for a host of other factors including their sex, education, whether or not they were in a relationship, if they had children and how well off they were, and also country affiliation.

There is robust evidence here that across Europe people who are likely to work longer are those who are self-employed or in a good job where they are in control and feel well supported and valued. They are also in better physical and mental shape than their retired counterparts.

Raising the State Pension Age or offering tax incentives to people to work longer may well favour certain groups who are already doing better than their peers in a number of ways. It could also place increased pressure on people already in poor health and in poor quality jobs.

All this needs to be taken into account by Governments looking to plug the pensions gap and by employers who will need to provide good jobs in a better, less stressful working environment if their workers are to remain productive post 65.

Further information

Photo credit: Fish, nico_enders

Out of work again? The psychological impacts of repeated unemployment

Being unemployed is bad for our mental well-being, but if we lose our job more than once does the psychological blow lessen in some way? Researchers Cara Booker from the University of Essex and Amanda Sacker at the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL used the long-running British Household Panel Survey to examine the psychological well-being of people who have repeatedly lost their jobs. Their findings show that our employment history makes a difference and could have implications for welfare to work initiatives from Governments looking to get people back to work.

Continuous employment may be what is best for us, but of course life is not always that straightforward and, at any given time, a significant proportion of the population will be out of work. This could be because we choose to take time out to undertake training or to have a family. We may fall ill or be made redundant.

The world of work is also becoming more flexible. Fewer people are staying with the same firm for long periods of time and more people are moving from contract to contract or job to job, sometimes with spells of unemployment in between.

At the same time, the Government wants to get more people off benefits and into work and is looking to make its Work Programme more effective.

Using 17 years of data collected from the participants in the British Household Panel Survey (1991-2008), we looked at any individual who had reported at least one spell of unemployment. Of these 1,642 participants, 82 per cent were unemployed once, 15 per cent twice and 3 per cent three or more times.

Mental health score

Participants were asked a range of questions about their mental health and answers to these were used to allot a score with 0-11 indicating good psychological health and 12 or more indicating stress or anxiety that could lead to ill health. The time periods before and after a spell of unemployment were also taken into account because job loss isn’t generally something that happens suddenly and there can be weeks or months building up to it.

Looking at the group as a whole, we found their psychological well-being was generally poorer during all spells of unemployment compared with when they were not unemployed, but there was no evidence of a lowering or increasing of the effect from one spell of unemployment to the next.

When we dug deeper into participants’ prior work history, however, we saw some differences between those people who had previously been ‘economically inactive’ (voluntarily not working e.g. to look after family or study) and those who had been working.

Those who prior to being employed had been ‘voluntarily’ not working suffered poorer psychological well-being after they went on to lose their job but became notably worse in the third spell of unemployment.

The previously employed group’s psychological well-being also took a knock after losing a job once and then again, but, by the third time there was no change, a possible indication that the individual is somehow adapting or getting used to dealing with the ‘shock’ of becoming unemployed.

When we compared levels of psychological well-being between these two groups, they were notably lower among the previously employed at unemployment spells one and two, but this was reversed at spell three.

Employment history matters

So only when we took into consideration being economically inactive as opposed to employed, did a slightly clearer picture emerge around this question of whether people adapt to the ‘shock’ of unemployment, with those previously employed seeming to adapt and those previously economically inactive becoming increasingly sensitive to it. These findings were given further weight when we looked at retrospective employment histories before the BHPS began.

One explanation for this is that those who come from an employed background tend to find work again after each unemployment spell they experience, so they become less anxious about finding another job. The economically inactive, meanwhile, seem to find it harder to enter and re-enter the job market which could account for increased anxiety with more attempts to sign up as ‘unemployed and seeking work’.

Household income also played a role with those who were economically inactive on higher than average incomes experiencing worse psychological well-being than their less off counterparts when making an unsuccessful attempt to enter employment.

In its recent Welfare-to-Work report, the Work and Pensions Committee pointed out that key to the programme’s success was providing unemployed people with “the right help at the right time” and a better understanding of the barriers and characteristics that prevent a swift return to work. A better understanding of the impacts of repeated spells of unemployment on people’s well-being would seem to resonate here.

It is also clear that good quality, secure employment opportunities with long term prospects are key to people’s health and happiness.

Psychological well-being and reactions to multiple unemployment events: adaptation or sensitisation? is research by Cara Booker and Amanda Sacker and is publishes in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

Photo credit: Kathryn Decker

 

Having a baby early? It might not be good for you later

Being employed is generally good for your health. That’s what a large body of research has shown over the years. But what about when you put having a family into the mix? That’s a question that Dr Anne McMunn at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL has been asking in a series of studies looking at the interplay between work-family life and health in middle age. Here she outlines her findings and explains why having children early may not be good for you.

When couples think about starting a family, they may make decisions around a host of concerns. Finances, careers, childcare all spring readily to mind as things that could crop up in discussions about when it might be best to have a child. Not many people will stop and think about how and when having a child might affect their health later on in life – but maybe they should.

Research to date has shown that combining paid work with family responsibilities is usually linked with better health outcomes, although existing research has a number of shortcomings: men are often excluded, health measures have tended to be self-reported rather than objective, few studies take account of the role health plays in whether or not people work, get married and have children in the first place, and, crucially, few studies look across the lifecourse at the timings of entry into parenthood.

Combining work and family life

Using the National Child Development Study, which is following the lives of 17 thousand people born in 1958, our research has looked at how they combined their work and family lives between the ages of 16 and 42 and what that meant for their health in their mid 40s.

The thinking behind the research was that those people with more stressful work-family lives (often characterised by having children very young, being unemployed, and not marrying or forming a long-term partnership) would go on to have physical signs or indicators of poor health such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, being overweight etc.

All the men and women in the study were ascribed one of 12 lifecourse types e.g. ‘Work, Later family’, ‘Later family, Work break’, ‘Teen parent’.

Table 1-1

Almost all men were in a group characterised by long-term full-time employment, with most (34%) entering family life later (the ‘Work, Later family’ group), with nearly as many entering family life earlier (the ‘Work, Earlier family’ group at 32%). Conversely fewer than half of women (47%) were in a group characterised by long-term full-time employment. The ‘Part-time work, Earlier Family’ was the most common group (18%) for women.

Similar proportions of men and women were in the ‘Work, Cohabitation, Later Parent’ group (7% and 5%, respectively), the ‘Work, Marriage, Non-Parent’ group (8% of men, 9% of women) and the ‘Work, No Family’ group (13% of men, 10% of women). Only 4% of women were in the ‘No Paid Work, Earlier Family’ group, and few men or women were in groups characterised by marital dissolution, teen parenthood or weak ties to work or family.

Early parenthood – poorer health

As we expected, those men and women who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later on enjoyed better health. Early parenthood, especially teen parenthood was clearly linked to poorer health, regardless of whether they were in paid work or in a stable long-term marriage.

For example, the waist circumference of teen parents was four inches larger, on average, than those who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later (fat accumulated around the waistline is known to be particularly risky for health). Groups who entered parenthood earlier had 10-18% more fat circulating in the blood and 2-8% less of the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol than those who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later.

Teen parents tended to be less well educated, which accounted for some of the link. However, even those who had stable employment and marriages, but had children early, had poorer health.

It seems that for both men and women, having children early is linked with poor health later on, possibly as a result of chronic stress from parenting in straitened circumstances with fewer financial and emotional resources.

Less human and social capital

Authors of other studies showing links between early parenthood and health problems such as depression, heart disease and long term illnesses, speculate that younger parents have accumulated less human and social capital to cope with the stresses of parenting. It is also possible that those who are older when they become parents have had time to establish healthier behaviours such as exercise and healthy eating prior to starting their families, making it easier to maintain those behaviours through the busy parenting years.

There is need for further evidence on how timing of parenthood influences health and we are currently replicating this study with participants from the 1970 birth cohort.

In the meantime, perhaps those family planning discussions around finances, careers and childcare should incorporate an extra question? If we have a child now rather than later, how might it affect our health later on? It’s a question that will be of interest not just to prospective parents, but to all those concerned with improving the long term health and well-being of our society.

Work-family life courses and metabolic markers in mid-life: evidence from the British National Child Development Study is research by Anne McMunn, Rebecca E Lacey, Meena Kumari, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough and Amanda Sacker.

Photo credit: Darren Johnson

 

Does having a rotten job in middle age leave us depressed in retirement?

People’s working conditions have been high up the news agenda recently and not just in non European parts of the world either. Understandably, considerable concern has been expressed about the impact that low paid jobs with poor and uncertain conditions have on workers’ lives. But what are the impacts of poor or stressful working conditions and job uncertainty on people’s mental health further down the line once they stop working? Morten Wahrendorf from University of Düsseldorf in Germany and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse have carried out research across Europe and found that those with poor jobs and working conditions in mid life are considerably more likely to suffer with depression after they retire.

Right across Europe people are living longer – on the face of it – a good thing. Unfortunately, for many, that increased life expectancy is accompanied by extended periods of poor health or disability – both physical and mental. The consequences of this are deeply worrying for policy makers funding services to care for people, overstretched health professionals and, of course for people themselves and their families.

It’s really important, therefore, to get a better handle on what goes on in our lives before we retire that might be linked to this later poor health. If we can identify what might lie behind it, we are more likely to be able to make changes and put things in place that reduce the risk for future generations.

The research looked at the mental health of nearly 5000 men and 4000 women with an average age of around 70 in 13 European countries and then looked back at their working lives in mid life to see what picture might emerge.

Using information from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), we looked at how stressful their job had been both physically and mentally, how well rewarded and supported they felt, whether they had been laid off or had a period of unemployment. We used a special set of questions asked in the survey to identify whether or not the participants showed signs of depression.

Physically and mentally demanding work

More then a quarter of the men and a fifth of the women reported their job had been highly physically and/or highly mentally demanding. The proportion of women who worked in low-skilled jobs was lower among women compared with men (80 per cent women, 68 per cent men).

With regard to stressful conditions at work, 15 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women said they had had low levels of control at work. 20 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women said the rewards were low and 17 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women said they received low levels of social support.

When we linked their earlier working life to their mental health in retirement, both men and women who had previously worked in mentally stressful jobs were more likely to exhibit signs of depression later on. For men, the strongest links with depression were for those who reported having jobs with a low level of control, whilst for women it was jobs with low levels of social support.

Both men and women who had worked in poor quality jobs were considerably more likely to be depressed than their peers with good jobs. Unsurprisingly, those people who had been unexpectedly laid off from a job in mid life were also more likely to be depressed later. Surprisingly, though unemployment and a fragmented career were associated with depression in men only.

The results stayed strong even after taking account of the workers’ health and social circumstances before middle age.

Clear and robust link

The research reinforces a number of studies drawing a clear and robust link between poor mental health in later life and a disadvantaged working life in middle age, whether that be in terms of working environment or job uncertainty. What’s new here though is tracing that link over people’s lifecourse from middle age into retirement. The research also shows some important and interesting distinctions between men and women.

There is a clear message here too for policy makers, business and health professionals that mid-life is a critical period where appropriate interventions and employment-related policies, such as lifelong learning programmes, through programmes increasing job security, or even mindfulness training, could bring significant benefits to individuals and society more widely, especially in the undeniable context of us all living and working longer.

Working conditions in mid-life and mental health in older ages is research by Morten Wahrendorf, David Blane, Mel Bartley, Nico Dragano and Johanes Siegrist and is published in Advances in Life Course Research.

Photo credit: World Bank

 

 

Work and family – how it affects our health

How our working and family lives affect our health as we get older is of increasing interest to us all. Researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies have used the 1958 Cohort Study to look at levels of inflammation (indicators of being at risk of illnesses such as heart disease) and and how people combine their work and family lives to see if any patterns emerge that could tell us more.

In this episode of the ICLS Podcast, Dr Rebecca Lacey explains the background and context of the research and what the team has found.

You can also listen to a policy seminar talk about the research.

Working longer: is it good for your health?

Across Europe we are all living and working longer. Many of us in the UK are working past state pension retirement age. But what sorts of jobs do older workers opt for and why and what does all this mean for our health, especially in the context of changes to the age at which we can collect our state pension?  In this policy presentation from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, Professor David Blane looks at what these changes mean for our quality of life as we get older and the implications for those working in occupational health.

A full transcription of David Blane’s talk is also available on the ICLS website.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

How travelling to work can work for you

There can’t be too many commuters who aren’t now aware that ditching the car and walking to work is much better for them. Considerable evidence has shown that walkers and cyclists are likely to weigh less and be slimmer than their car commuting counterparts. What they may be less aware of is that ditching the car in favour of the bus, train or the tube could have nearly the same benefits. A programme of research by a team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, UCL has been taking a closer look at the benefits of being an ‘active commuter’. As researcher Ellen Flint explains, the findings point to some clear ways forward, not just for individuals, but for policy makers too.

Physical inactivity and being sedentary for large parts of the day are a leading cause of obesity and premature death. In England alone something like two thirds of adults do not meet the recommended levels of daily exercise. At the same time there are growing numbers of people commuting to work. In England and Wales that figure is around 24 million people, 67% of whom take the car.

The time of life when most adults become obese is in middle age, with 50-65 year-olds less than half as likely as young adults aged 16-29 to use public transport, nearly half as likely to walk to and from work and two thirds less likely to get on their bikes. So it’s this age group that we have focused on in our programme of research looking at the relationship between active commuting and obesity in mid life.

To help us do this, we have used information from a long term household survey called Understanding Society and a large study called UK Biobank.

Public transport benefits

Our first piece of research used Understanding Society and showed us that not just walking or cycling to work but even catching the bus or the tube are all linked to lower body weight and body fat composition compared with those who get to work by car.

7,534 BMI and 7,424 percentage body fat measurements from men and women who took part in the survey were used in conjunction with information about journeys to work.

Men who commuted via public or active modes had BMI scores around 1 point lower than those who used private transport, equating to a difference in weight of 3kg (almost half a stone) for the average man.

Women who commuted via public or active transport had BMI scores around 0.7 points lower than their private transport using counterparts, equating to a difference in weight of 2.5kg (5.5lb) for the average woman.

When it came to body fat, men who actively travelled to work (walking, cycling or public transport) had body fat that was roughly one per cent point lower than those who commuted by car, confirming the picture seen when looking at BMI.

What’s important to note here is that these differences are larger than those seen in the majority of individually focused diet and physical activity interventions to prevent overweight and obesity.

Second study reinforces

In work just published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, we were able to use information from more than 70,000 men and 80,000 women aged 40-69.

More than 60% of these people commuted by car, with only 4 percent and 7 percent respectively reporting walking as their only method of commute and 4 percent and 2 percent cycling. Around one in five was an active commuter some or all of the time.

Except for those who mixed car and public transport, all other groups had significantly lower BMI and percentage body fat than those men and women who ONLY commuted by car.

The biggest differences were for cyclists and the results stayed strong even when we accounted for a wide range of other factors such as social and economic background, their general health and even whether or not they did exercise outside of their daily commute.

The men who cycled were around 5 kg lighter whilst women cyclists were on average nearly 4.5kg lighter than their car commuting counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, walking to work had the next biggest association with reduced obesity. Compared with their car commuting counterparts, men who walked to work were on average 3.0kg lighter; and women typically weighed 2.1kg less.

However, what was perhaps more interesting, and what also reinforced our interesting earlier findings from Understanding Society, was that even those who used a mixture of public transport and active methods of commuting still had significantly lower BMI and body fat percentage than those who commuted exclusively by car.

In fact, it was similar to those who only walked to work. Compared with car commuters, men and women who mixed public transport with some walking or cycling typically weighed 3.1kg and 2.0kg less, respectively.

Active commuting at heart of policy

Separately these two studies make interesting reading, but together they combine to make a powerful and growing body of evidence around the benefits of active commuting and do more than hint at potential interventions for policy makers.

There is now a clear case for the health benefits of active commuting to be taken into consideration by transport planners, town planners and urban designers.

Cities can be active by design and the more evidence that we have to confirm that people who commute actively really are lighter and have a healthier body composition, the more impetus there is for these health related outcomes to be at the heart of policy.

It is time to realise the untapped population health improvements potential of these big shifts we can make in how people travel to and from work.

Photo credit: Chris Rubberdragon

A question of inflammation

Inflammation can be good and bad for us. Find out more in this presentation from researcher Rebecca Lacey, who uses inflammatory markers in mid life to look at whether the way in which we combine our work and family lives early on affects our health later on.

The research,  presented at an ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies policy seminar, concludes that homemakers and people who have children early, particularly teen parents, are at greater risk of poor health in mid life and recommends increased support and opportunities for young parents.

Listen to Rebecca’s presentation and view the slides below.

Work, family and health – a question of inflammation? from Chris Garrington on Vimeo.

Photo credit: Fixers