Sitting in a car, train or bus, and then at a desk for hours on end, can really hurt your health. Add some small movements to your day and reap the rewards.

When you dash out of the door each morning to catch your bus, taxi or train, the main thing on your mind usually is: "I hope I won’t have to stand all the way, again." So you push, shove and elbow your way past your fellow commuters to make sure you get a seat.

As you plonk down into your seat, you whip out your tablet and earphones and prepare yourself for an uninterrupted 40-minute trip – just enough time to catch up on your favourite series, read a book or watch a few mindless YouTube videos.

This is the way to commute, right? Wrong! You could actually be doing considerable harm to your health by sitting still for extended periods of time.

"Scientists think that too much sitting impairs the body’s ability to deposit fat from the blood stream into the body. These constantly elevated blood fats are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," says the American College of Sports Medicine in their 2011 awareness brochure entitled Reducing Sedentary Behaviours: Sitting Less and Moving More.

Too much sitting (or sedentary behaviour) also impairs the function of the body’s healthy HDL cholesterol, which helps clean up plaque sticking to the arteries. Plaque is made up of bad cholesterol (fat), calcium and other deposits that build up in the arteries and combine with smooth muscle cells in the blood-vessel walls. Over time, this can block blood flow completely, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Being inactive also has other important health implications: the less you move, the less energy you burn - a situation that could lead to weight gain and, with it, a host of other diseases such as hypertension, certain types of cancer, liver and gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea and type 2 diabetes.

"Physical inactivity is now considered to be a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases. These diseases can be seen as diseases of a poor lifestyle," says Neil Hopkins, a Cape Town-based biokineticist, stressing that the human body isn’t designed to be sedentary. "We need to move to be healthy, for cardiac reasons and metabolic reasons, as well as for orthopaedic health reasons."

Get moving – while you're moving
The good news is that your daily commute doesn’t have to make you fat and sick; there are ways to move, burn calories and stay healthy on your way to work. Note, however, that this could mean that you need to find a way to cycle, walk or run as part of your commute – and fit other little movements into your trip.

To prove how effective your daily commute can be when it comes to burning calories, international fitness chain Virgin Active conducted a study in 2014 that focused on the average British commuter.

This is what they found:

    • The average UK commuter burns 324 calories (1360kJ) on their journey to and from work.

    • The energy expended by a daily commute is the equivalent of a chocolate bar or a jam doughnut.

    • The British national average length of a commute is 28.46 minutes, or a round-trip lasting just under an hour.

    • Little things like bum clenches on the tube can burn an additional 50 calories (210 kilojoules) per trip.

“The benefits that we’ve identified about the morning commute are surprising, so imagine the good we can do if we consciously make an effort towards an active and healthy life – things like taking the stairs, rather than the lift or clenching your bum on your commute to work can make a big difference,” noted Hugh Hanley, Head of Personal Training at Virgin Active in the UK, in a press release.

Move on the bus or train
To make the most of your bus or train ride, Mike Martin, a personal trainer at Equinox gym in Santa Monica, USA, has devised these useful exercises:

    • In the seated position, place your bag, a thick book or your fists between your knees and squeeze your knees together and hold for 8 to 10 seconds. Breathe normally and release. Repeat 8 to 12 times or until muscles fatigue.

    • In the standing position, place your feet shoulder-width apart, with a slight bend in the knees and pull your belly button in. When the train or bus moves forward or stops, use your center to brace yourself. Do this without holding onto anything.

    • In the seated position, keep your shoulders and neck relaxed then contract your lower abdominal muscles. Imagine your belly button is moving back and upward into the small of your back. Hold the lower abdominal contraction and engage your upper abs. Hold the contraction for eight to 10 seconds, breathing normally and return to a neutral sitting position. Repeat 8 to 12 times or until muscles fatigue.

In the standing position, work your biceps by holding onto the rail strap to engage your bicep.

Keep your neck and shoulders relaxed while holding the bicep contraction for 8 to 10 seconds and release. Repeat the move 8 to 12 times or until muscles fatigue. Change arms and repeat on the other side.

If you have a choice, rather stand than sit in the train or bus: in research conducted by the BBC and the University of Chester in the UK, standing was shown to contribute to a much higher heart rate in study volunteers (as opposed to sitting). This added up to burning about 50 calories (210 kilojoules) more per hour vs. sitting. Over a year, this added up to about 30,000 more calories (or 126,000 more kilojoules) and a whopping 3.6kg of fat. Also, if you’re going to use your iPad or tablet, make sure it’s for something that makes you laugh.

"Laughing more is another great route to a healthy body and mind. Laughter burns calories, reduces muscle tension, increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, exercises the heart and produces endorphins [happy hormones]," according to Hasina Aktar, a registered dietician who commented on the Virgin Active research findings.

Move in the car
While your focus should be on the road if you’re driving your car to work, there are little ways to burn calories here too. Try the following:

    • Gently contract and relax your abdominals while sitting.

    • Contract and relax your glute (bum) muscles.

    • Learn how to do Kegel exercises, which strengthen the pelvic-floor muscles, and work at them while you’re listening to the radio in the car.

If your car is in neutral, and the traffic is gridlocked, focus on giving your calf muscles a workout: put your feet on the car floor, and lift and lower your heels.

And when you get to the office, try to park as far from the entrance as possible. Do a brisk walk to your desk and make sure you get up frequently during the day: every bathroom, lunch or tea break counts towards calories (and fat) burned!

Reviewed by Neil Hopkins Registered Biokineticist BSc. (med)(hons) Exercise Science (Biokinetics) BA Sport Science


- American College of Sports Medicine, Reducing Sedentary Behaviors: Sitting Less, Moving More
- Neil Hopkins, Registered Biokineticist
- Dr James Levine, The NEAT Defect in Human Obesity
- Virgin Active, Calorie Commuting: Fit For Work


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