A long commute doesn’t just eat away your free time. It may also erode your health and happiness in subtle—and sometimes surprising—ways. Here’s how a lengthy commute can drive up your stress level, blood pressure, and weight.
A longer commute often equals a larger waistline, according to a study slated for the June 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study included nearly 4,300 workers in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin metro areas.
The researchers found that traveling as little as 10 miles to work put people at increased risk for high blood pressure. Once the commute stretched to more than 15 miles, people were also at greater risk for obesity and a large waistline. Plus, they were less likely to be very physically fit and meet recommendations for regular physical activity. You probably recognize all these things as risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Obviously, the more time spent sitting in a car, the less that’s available for taking a walk, riding your bike, or knocking around a few tennis balls. But long commutes aren’t just linked to an inactive lifestyle. They may also lead to greater stress and more reliance on fast food—two other factors that can be major roadblocks to health and well-being.
Researchers have found that, as commuting time goes up, life satisfaction tends to go down. There’s also a link between lengthy commutes and chronic stress, time pressure, and fatigue. In studies, people who commute long distances say they have fewer opportunities for leisure and more worries about getting home to the kids.
Long commutes also subtract from time spent with family and friends. When social geographer Erika Sandow at Umea University analyzed data on more than 2 million Swedes who were married or living with a partner, she found that long-distance commuters often were rewarded with higher pay. But this benefit came at a price: Their risk of divorce or separation was 40% higher than for other people.
It stands to reason: People who get up earlier and return home later have less time left over for sleep. In fact, research has shown that, when people commute long distances, the quality and quantity of their sleep may suffer.
For shift workers, a long commute may just exacerbate problems with getting to sleep or staying awake when they need to.
Finally, more time on traffic-clogged streets and highways means more exposure to polluted air. One study found that, for Los Angeles residents, up to half of their total exposure to harmful air pollutants came while they were traveling in their cars.
The ideal solution to commuting woes is to move closer to work, get a job closer to home, or start telecommuting. Unfortunately, those options aren’t open to everyone. The next-best alternative may be public transportation. You’ll still be riding to and from work instead of training for a 10k, cooking a wholesome meal, or spending quality time with your mate, but at least you’ll be able to relax more because you don’t have to drive.
Studies have also shown that people who find entertaining or productive ways to use their commute time feel healthier and less stressed. If you’re driving, that might mean listening to your favorite tunes or a recorded book. If you’re a passenger, it could mean connecting with loved ones via your laptop or mobile phone, reading the morning paper, or catching 40 winks.
But if you still hate your long commute, don’t feel bad. It doesn’t like you much either.
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