For many Americans, a daily commute isn’t just the worst part of the day — it’s also a health risk.
With the cost of living increasing in many urban areas, and technological advances allowing for more work to be done from home, it’s not surprising that more Americans are commuting to work from farther and farther away.
Studies have confirmed that these commutes, some as short as 10 miles, have numerous detrimental effects on health that include everything from lower happiness to high blood pressure.
But even as more evidence points to traffic jams or lengthy commutes as being harmful to health, the average U.S. commute time and distance continues to rise.
In the most highly-trafficked areas, commuters can spend over 80 minutes going to and from work, according to the research that was pulled from data released by the U.S. Census Bureau,
Some areas have such a large commuting problem, that researchers coined the new term “super commuter” in 2012.
The term describes individuals who essentially live in one city but commute to another for work. More generally, the term refers to those who spend hours per day commuting — as much as three to four hours each way.
“This kind of travel raises your blood pressure,” said Richard Jackson, professor emeritus of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
“It raises your cortisol level, it raises your adrenaline level, it actually raises your risk of having a heart attack during and for about an hour after you’re doing this. So, there are direct physical threats,” he said.
Professor Jackson has spent years studying how “the built environment” — urban design and neighborhoods — affect health.
Other acute effects of commuting include increased exposure to air pollution and respiratory problems.
Commuting is also frequently just one more major way in which Americans have become more sedentary. An hour in the car to work is one more hour sitting down.
Commuting can also lead to worse decisions when it comes to diet.
“When people are doing these super commutes, what do you eat? You eat fast food, and fast food is generally loaded with sugar, fat, and salt,” said Jackson.
“There are lots of upstream causes for our obesity and diabetes but the removal of physical activity from our lives is a very big one. A generation ago, 60-70 percent of kids walked to school and now it’s only about 20 percent,” he said.
A study published in 2012 on commuters in Texas metropolitan areas found that individuals with longer commutes, around 15 miles, were less physically active, more likely to be obese, and more likely to have unhealthy waist sizes.
A commute that was just 10 miles long was associated with an increase in high blood pressure.
On the other hand, research supports the notion that individuals who physically commute to work — through biking or walking — actually have lower risk of both heart attack and stroke.
However for most, the obvious effects of a long commute are likely not physical but mental: the stress, anger, boredom, and listlessness of the daily commute.
“What you do in that car on a moment-to-moment real-time basis makes a very big difference about your experience,” said Curtis Reisinger, PhD, director of the Northwell Health Employee and Family Assistance Program and Chief, Psychiatry-Psychological Services, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, New York.
“The dialogue that you have in your head is going to compound the impact of the deleterious effects.”
According to Reisinger, humans are well-equipped to deal with acute moments of stress — say getting cut off in traffic — but when these moments happen day after day, those acute moments of stress turn into long-term chronic stress.
A Canadian study in 2015 found that people with longer commutes had lower satisfaction with life for exactly those reasons. More time in the car equated to more stress, pressure, and FOMO.
“When you’re driving in difficult traffic, you are using a lot more of your physical and mental energy, which can be exhausting… It’s not only emotional exhaustion, you actually get physically exhausted from muscle tension,” said Reisinger.
Fortunately there are steps to take that can help make your commute less stressful, perhaps even enjoyable.
- Keep your car clean. “For long commutes, your car is your second home from a day-to-day basis. How you keep that home will also determine your experience,” said Reisinger. Decluttering your car can help you feel more relaxed and at ease during the drive.
- Listen to music or podcasts. Find something enjoyable about your commute and engage with it. Make your car “a welcoming place where you can look a little bit forward to getting away from work or away from home and just having almost a retreat if you can pull it off,” said Reisinger.
- Vary your route. Learn more about your city, indulge your curiosity, or just try to beat your GPS route. Finding different ways to get to work can make for a more stimulating commute.
- Use driving to hone focus. “You can actually use driving as a meditative exercise because one of the things is that having control and focus of what your mind is on is one of the most critical things. One of the things that can help you so much is to keep your focus on driving,” said Reisinger.