Is Business Travel Killing You?


by Robert McGarvey


An article in Harvard Business Review has terrifying news for you: Your travel may be killing you. Literally.

Hotels and event organizers are failing us and, in fact, may be hastening our demise. Ditto our employers.

That’s how grim the HBR data is.

Author Andrew Rundle, an associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, wrote: “we found a strong correlation between the frequency of business travel and a wide range of physical and behavioral health risks. Compared to those who spent one to six nights a month away from home for business travel, those who spent 14 or more nights away from home per month had significantly higher body mass index scores and were significantly more likely to report the following: poor self-rated health; clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence; no physical activity or exercise; smoking; and trouble sleeping. The odds of being obese were 92% higher for those who traveled 21 or more nights per month compared to those who traveled only one to six nights per month, and this ultra-traveling group also had higher diastolic blood pressure and lower high density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol).”

Read that again. Rundle is saying that heavy business travelers – 14 or more nights away from home monthly – weigh too much, self-diagnose anxiety, and don’t exercise. Only 12% of employees screened fall into this bucket of frequent travel.

Hardcore road warriors – with 21+ nights monthly on the road – are probably obese and have strong signs of cardiovascular disease.


Rundle arrived at that conclusion by crunching mountains of de-identified data provided by EHE, which offers preventative exams and wellness screening for tens of thousands of US corporate employees.  Data on frequency of business travel is part of the EHE screening exam.

Rundle’s results make sense.  No, I did not expect the picture to be this bad. But I know when I am traveling my daily walk is usually forgotten (Las Vegas is an exception – cavernous meeting spaces actually create lots of walking in Sin City), breakfast is a carb fest (a bagel grabbed from a coffee break at the meeting), lunch is whatever is on the venue (again, usually, lots of carbs), and dinner, for me, often is a sandwich over my keyboard in my hotel room as I write up the day’s information. It’s a hectic schedule. Too much coffee, too many carbs, little or no exercise, too few fresh veg, a radical departure from my at home routine.

Rundle pointed to studies of World Bank employees that found similar bad health among heavy travelers.  One study found that “Overall, rates of insurance claims were 80% higher for men and 18% higher for women travellers than their non-travelling counterparts.”

A second World Bank study found that 75% of road warriors reported “high or very high” stress related to business travel.

What can be done about this? Rundle urged more employer education for frequent travelers aimed at getting out the message about good food choices and good health practices.  To me that sounds good but – really – do you learn anything you don’t know in wellness sessions? Our problem isn’t our ignorance, it’s our lack of backbone when we travel and our apparently chronic willingness to discard our habits of healthy eating and exercise when at home for a life of no exercise and burgers and fries and a couple beers when on the road.  We know what we should eat. We just don’t care.  Me too.

Rundle also pointed to hotel gyms as a possible savior. He wrote: “One fairly simple thing employers can do is to ensure that their preferred accommodations have well-equipped gyms.”  He added: “hotel gyms can be minimalist and a bit depressing, but an alliance of sorts between employers and business hotel chains could work together to improve the hotel gym experience.”

I am no fan of hotel gyms – I never use them –  but maybe I should re-think that and, definitely, I should always bring walking shoes when I travel and make a point to get out for five or six miles daily.

But I believe that hotels and meeting venues that see the HBR study have got to take the findings seriously and that means really upping the health/wellness choices for road warriors and also upgrading exercise options to make them appealing to frequent travelers.

More advice from Rundle is always ask, is this trip necessary?  A lot of my travel now is getting replaced with video calls. Yours?

That just may be the surest way to protect our health: Travel less.




2 thoughts on “Is Business Travel Killing You?”

  1. And better food choices at decent prices from room service … if it still exists at the hotel at which one stays.

    It’s not just food and exercise, it’s the stress of airlines/airports (rude staff, unfollowed policies, crowded planes), hotels (noise, inability to check in early or out late, scented everything), meetings/conferences & the space they’re in (no natural light, miserable seating, absurd scheduling), and the whole experience wears in us all.

    We knew all this and still it doesn’t change.

    And I’m in the hospitality industry.

  2. I made the decision last year to travel less… much less. I’m down from 90% travel to less than 30%. No more three weeks at a time on the road for this boy. The result? Lower blood pressure, less anxiety (except when I find myself in a crummy airport like Midway, or jammed on a full plane like a sardine), and back to eating more vegetarian. After five years of constant travel, I’d had enough.

    No more filthy hotel rooms, and unpleasant encounters with fellow travelers and airline employees. I can handle much of what I need to do remotely, and that is fine with me.

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