People who travel extensively for business have increased rates of poor health and health risk factors, including obesity and high blood pressure, reports a study in the April Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

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, using data on more than 13,000 employees from a corporate wellness program. Close to 80 percent of the employees traveled at least one night per month. Nearly one percent were “extensive travelers” — 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 travelers (one to six nights per month), non-travelers were about 60 percent more likely to rate their health as fair to poor. This may reflect a “healthy worker effect,” with employees who have health problems being less likely to travel.

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

Other health risk factors showed similar patterns: obesity was 33 percent more likely non-travelers and 92 percent more likely for extensive travelers. The same two groups were also more likely to have high blood pressure and unfavorable 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 travelers — for example, poor sleep, fattening foods, and long periods of inactivity.

More research is needed to substantiate the link between frequent business travel and increased health risks. Meanwhile, the authors suggest some steps that companies can take to help employees stay healthy while they're on the road — for example, offering stress management classes, selecting hotels with gym facilities, or tying meal reimbursements to healthier food choices.