Like a lot of reporters, I spare a fair amount of a time on the road, maybe eight to 10 days a month on average. I like traveling — I wouldn’t have gotten into this line of work if I didn’t — and as TIME’s environment reporter, I’ve gotten to visit places I especially like: Madagascar, Siberia, Hokkaido, Ecuador, India and, um, Alberta. I’ve racked up serious frequent flyer miles, stamps in my passport — and maybe some damage to my health.
As any frequent business traveler knows, there’s a dark side to spending all that time in the air and in the car. It’s tough to eat healthily on the road, where fast-food restaurants and airport outlets seem to conspire to make you fat. Many hotels lack gyms, and the frazzled schedule of a road trip rarely leaves time for exercise anyway. I often return home to New York City exhausted, feeling like I have French fry grease running through my veins.
(More on Time.com: Fat but Happy? French Fries and Cheetos Lower Stress)
As it turns out, there’s medical evidence for the (crappy) way I feel. A new study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine by Andrew Rundle and Catherine Richards of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that business travelers who spend the most time on the road tend to have higher rates of obesity and poorer self-rated health than those who travel less frequently.
The two researchers used data from medical records of more than 13,000 employees in a corporate wellness program provided by EHE International, which enabled them to link up travel time with health. “As travel goes up, how you feel about your own health goes down,” says Rundle, an epidemiologist who focuses on physical activity. “The people who travel the most — and those who don’t travel at all — tend to have the worst health.”
The latter part might seem counterintuitive, but Rundle explains that workers who never travel likely have pre-existing medical conditions that keep them at home, which means they’re obviously not healthy. But compare those on the road two or more weeks a month, with those who travel only one to six days a month, and the differences become obvious. Frequent travelers had worse outcomes on various health measures, the study found, including:
- a mean body mass index (BMI) of 27.5, versus 26.1 for light travelers
- a mean HDL, or “good cholesterol,” level of 53.3 mg/dL, versus 56.1 for light travelers
- a mean diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of 76.2 mmHG, versus 74.6 for light travelers
- a 260% greater likelihood of rating their health as fair to poor, compared with travelers
(More on Time.com: What’s the Ideal BMI for Longevity?)
Rundle says he was inspired to begin studying the subject because he spends a great deal of time on the road and knows the drawbacks of business travel. “They put you in a hotel with no gym and no restaurant, then they give you a takeout menu and tell you to order from the Cheesecake Factory,” he says. “My annoyance was a phenomenon that affected my health, but with this data, we could actually study it.”
So what makes business travel so hazardous to your health? For one thing, 81% of trips are done in automobiles, which involves long periods of sitting — not good for you — and encounters with high-calorie, high-fat foods in roadside service areas or drive-thrus. The road itself, in America at least, is an “obesogenic environment,” meaning it promotes bad eating and inactivity in part by making it hard to make healthy choices.
(More on Time.com: The Dangers of Sitting on the Job — and Standing)
But companies could take a role in fixing that environment, perhaps by putting employees in hotels that offer all-night gyms, or offering bonus reimbursement for employees who seek out healthy food on the road — although, granted, that is a little Big Brotherish.
On the whole, road warriors are on their own. Personally, I try to make a habit of bringing running shoes and hitting the pavement outside my hotel — you don’t need a gym for that. (That can be a bit tricky, though — especially, if, for instance, you’re on a boat.) Otherwise, I try to lay off the McDonald’s, despite my love of a good Sausage Egg McMuffin on those early morning drives, and occasionally even buy the overpriced, plastic-covered pieces of fruit available in airport food courts.
(More on Time.com: When Is a Salad not a Salad? Why Dieters Are Confused by Labels)
In the end, though, as long as America remains a fast-food nation, there’s not much a business traveler can do about it. Travel is broadening for your mind — and your waistline.