The Spare Tire of Business Travel

Uh oh!  More bad news for busy pharma executives, physicians and Word on Health bloggers.  A new study published in the April Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine has found that people who travel frequently for business increase the rate of poor health and health risk factors, including obesity and high blood pressure.

Travel is a prominent feature of business life in the United States, with an estimated 405 million long-distance business trips taken in 2009. While there is a large body of literature on health risks associated with business travel, this is almost exclusively focused on infectious diseases and the risks of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism associated with long-distance air travel.

In this latest study Catherine A. Richards, MPH, and Andrew G. Rundle, DrPH, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University compared health risks for employees at different levels of business travel. They used data on more than 13,000 employees from a corporate wellness program. Close to 80% of the employees travelled at least one night per month. Nearly 1% were “extensive travellers” which they defined as those who are on the road more than 20 nights per month.Employees who did not travel at all were actually a less-healthy group. Compared to light travellers (1-6 nights per month), non-travellers were about 60% more likely to rate their health as fair to poor.   However, this may reflect a “healthy worker effect”, with employees who have health problems being less likely to travel, suggest the authors.

Otherwise, rates of less-than-good health increased along with nights of travel. Extensive travellers were a staggering 260% more likely to rate their health as fair to poor, compared to light travellers.

Other health risk factors showed similar patterns: obesity was 33% more likely for non-travellers and 92% more likely for extensive travellers.
The same two groups were also more likely to have high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.

Although business travel is often equated with long airline flights, relatively short business trips in personal cars are much more common.   Several factors could contribute to health risks in frequent business travellers, such poor sleep, fattening foods, increased alcohol consumption and long periods of inactivity.

The authors of the study suggest a number of interesting solutions to the problem such as employee education programs on the association between business travel and health and strategies to improve diet and activity while traveling.  They also recommend that companies who reimburses employees for meals while traveling, tie reimbursement rates to dietary quality. A “stick” approach might be to reimburse high–energy density food meals at a below cost rate, while a “carrot” approach might be to reimburse healthy meals at an above cost rate.

Additionally, companies that have arrangements with particular hotel chains could make having a gym part of the criteria for selecting a hotel chain and employees should be given time and perhaps financial incentives to exercise while traveling.

How do you cope with life on the road?  Please share your travel tips with us.