There you sit, trapped in a rolling steel cage on a gridlocked freeway with a lone Cheerio dangling from your chin.
In front of you, drivers are texting and crashing into each other.
The woman in the car next to yours paints her nails while eating a piece of toast.
Over on the shoulder of the freeway a policeman has pulled someone over, which is strange because no one is going more than 4 mph. That must mean the driver is a criminal. You make eye contact.
Lock the doors. Lock the doors. Lock the doors.
You flip around your radio dial, and your choices are a public radio report about the unfortunate demise of Nordic folk fiddling or “Zeke, Goatbutt and the Morning Zoo Crew.”
Then your left arm goes numb for a second, and you think it’s a heart attack, but then you remember that your left arm has been in the same position for 20 minutes and realize it has only has fallen asleep. You calmly move your tongue around, searching for the taste of copper.
“My commute,” you think, “is killing me.”
And you might be right.
Commuting and Health
The average commute for Americans is 25 minutes each way. That means, that on average, we spend 50 minutes a day or 5 percent of our waking workday hours in the car. That’s if we’re lucky. There are 600,000 Americans who drive 50-plus miles for more than 90 minutes each way. A quarter of them live in the Washington, D.C. area. (Kind of explains things, doesn’t it?)
In a world where seemingly everything adversely affects our health, commuting can now be added to the list. As with sitting, the number of associations between physical inactivity and health maladies is rising. The difference between sitting and commuting is that we get the added bonus of stress.
Commuting and the Broken Heart
Earlier this year a study out of Australia revealed that people who walked or rode their bikes (active commuters) to work gained less weight than commuters who drove. OK, so that’s obvious. Interestingly, lead researcher Takemi Sugiyama, a behavioral epidemiologist at Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, also found that active commuters gained less weight than car commuters who worked out in their spare time.
“In order to achieve the level of physical activity needed to prevent weight gain, it may be more realistic to accumulate physical activity through active transport, rather than adding exercise to weekly leisure-time routines,” she told the Health Behavior News Service.
In other words, according to Sugiyama, riding your bike to work every day is more likely to keep you trim than riding a stationary bike at the gym.
Similar to the Australian study, in 2009 Penny Gordon-Larsen of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health found that men and women who walk or ride a bike to work appear more fit. Yeah, duh, right? But Gordon-Larsen also revealed that men who are active commuters are less likely to be overweight and are more likely to have healthier triglyceride levels, blood pressure and insulin levels than car commuters.
Bad news for car commuters — those are both factors for heart disease.
This one isn’t the only study that makes the heart disease-commuting link.
In 2013, health researcher Christine M. Hoehner published research in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that linked greater commuting distances with decreased cardiorespiratory fitness, increased weight and other indicators of metabolic risk.
One of the striking findings in the study was that even a relatively short commute affected health. Commuters who drove more than 15 miles to work had a higher likelihood of obesity and were less likely to meet the recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity. Commuting just 10 miles revealed an association with high blood pressure. And even after Hoehner’s team controlled for physical activity, they still saw a significant association with blood pressure.
“There might be something else going on here,” Hoehner said. “We don’t have the data to support this, but we could hypothesize that people with longer commutes are more likely to experience chronic stress, possibly, in traffic.”
And chronic stress, as we know, can affect every aspect of your life — for example, your love life.
In 2011, Swedish social geographer Erika Sandow published a study that seemed so obvious that it made everyone go, “Of course! That makes total sense! They had to study that?” But thankfully they did, or we’d never know for sure.
In her dissertation, Sandow revealed that the risk of separation among couples is 40 percent higher among long-distance commuters. A long-distance commute, in this case, is defined as at least 18.6 miles (Euclidian distance AKA “as the crow flies”), which averaged out to about 45 minutes in the car each way.
Think about it. Less time with your partner. Less time with your kids. More pressure on your partner to handle all of the domestic chores and childcare. Too much time listening to Zeke, Goatbutt and the Morning Zoo Crew on the car radio — you can see how it would take its toll.
Is Your Commute Killing You?
Whether or not your commute is killing you depends on how long it is, Sandow says. Her research finds that workers with commutes of more than 30 miles one way die sooner than people who live closer to their workplaces.
I asked Sandow if it’s possible that people who lead unhealthy lifestyles are more likely to commute. She said that commuting length is typically related to gender, income and education. Long-distance commuters tend to be highly educated men with high incomes. Men with higher incomes tend to be older. The leading cause of death among older men is heart disease, which is linked to factors such as high blood pressure, which we now know is associated with commuting.
But commuting does not affect men alone. There is a link between female mortality and long commuting as well, especially when women have a low income and education level.
“I do think that the lifestyle that long commutes bring is related to the health outcomes,” Sandow said. “Spending more time on commuting must necessarily mean that one has to trade off this time against other activities. We know from previous research that the greatest share of commuting times comes from sleep reduction. Time is also taken from physical activity and food preparation.”
Think about the factors that affect your health — exercise, sleep, food and social activity. Commuting has the potential to touch all of them.
So What Can You Do?
The study of commuting is still new, but the first indicators point in the same direction.
“While commuting can mean increased salary, a better job or even getting a job, it can also mean long travel times and increased stress and health problems,” Sandow said. “The understanding of long-term health consequences of long-distance commuting on commuters and their households is still quite unclear.”
Researchers agree that commuting isn’t a choice for many; it’s a necessity. You usually can’t quit commuting in the same way that you can quit smoking, but there are steps that can be taken to lessen the negative impact of your commute on your health.
Hoehner urges employers to allow employees to take walking breaks throughout the day, give employees the option of standing desks and let people arrive at the office and/or leave the office later or earlier to avoid rush hour on the roads. Employees who are concerned about their health should ask for these things instead of waiting for them to be offered.
We’re all doing enough waiting already when we’re sitting in our cars on the road.