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Why long car commutes are hazardous to our health (and happiness)

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Research has shown that people with long commutes “consistently spent less time exercising, sleeping, and making food at home."

In two recent entries in his series on “the past, present and future of commuting in America,” Vox science reporter Joseph Stromberg explains why long car commutes are “horrible for your health” — and why biking or walking to work “will make you happier and healthier.”

And, yes, he does support those statements with plenty of research, although, admittedly, a lot of it involves observational studies, which can’t actually prove cause and effect.

Still, the bulk of the research to date on this topic leans heavily toward the finding that how we get to and from work does play an important role in our physical and mental health. Yet few of us think of it that way.

“Many Americans are obsessed with rooting out things that make us unhealthy — even to the point of overkill,” writes Stromberg. “We detox, we avoid gluten, we devise excessively complicated exercise regimes (even though these are all unnecessary). And yet for some reason, we seem to have no problem doing a simple activity every single weekday that’s associated with obesity, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and general unhappiness. That activity is commuting — or at least commuting alone by car.”

Inhibiting healthful habits

As Stromberg reports, one study involving more than 4,000 Texas workers found that people who had long car commutes (more than 20 miles a day) tended to have higher blood pressure and blood sugar levels than those with shorter commutes (less than 5 miles a day).

Those effects vanished when the study’s authors corrected for exercise habits. But, notes Stromberg, “the sad truth is that most people seem to lose their willpower to exercise after sitting in traffic for long stretches of time.”

Other research has shown, he explains, that people with long commutes “consistently spent less time exercising, sleeping, and making food at home. They were also more likely to buy “non-grocery food purchases” (i.e., fast food or takeout).”

And even if they do find the time and energy to exercise, people with long commutes still tend to have higher blood pressure than those with shorter commutes — as well as more chronic back or neck pain.

Long commutes are also associated with higher levels of chronic stress — and with sleep problems. No wonder, then, that surveys (taken both in the U.S. and abroad) have found that people with longer commutes “report spending more time worrying, feeling less well-rested, and experiencing less enjoyment in life,” reports Stromberg.

Travel time not only factor

But not all types of long commutes are equal. The mode of transportation we use to get to work also appears to affect both our physical and mental health.

Writes Stromberg:

A recent Canadian study sorted people by mode of travel — walking, biking, driving, bus, intercity train, and intracity metro — and found that people who walk, bike, or take the intercity train are more satisfied with their commutes than others.

Meanwhile, a British study found that people who walk, bike, or take any form of public transit have lower rates of obesity than people who drive, after controlling for other forms of exercise and socioeconomic factors … even when (non-commuting) exercise, age, and other health factors were taken into account. [Taking public transportation may be as healthy as walking or biking because it usually involves some kind of walk at either end of the commute. 

“It’s important to note that this is a correlation, not a causation,” Stromberg stresses. “There could be other factors involved that the researchers failed to account for. But previous work has shown that people who walk or bike to work also have lower rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It seems that not driving has all sorts of positive health benefits.”

Not always a choice

Some 85 percent of workers in the United States drive a car to their job, and those commutes average 50 minutes each workday, Stromberg reports.

More than 8 percent of Americans workers spend more than two hours of each workday commuting, he adds.

Of course, not everybody has a choice in how they get to work.

“In many places,” writes Stromberg, “there’s a tradeoff between living closer to work (enabling a person to bike or walk) and paying less in rent, or having more space. Similarly, most American cities simply don’t have the public transit infrastructure to convey lots of people who live far from their places of work, and some places even make it tough for people who live close to their offices to walk to work.”

“But we do have a choice in the long term — both as individuals (when thinking about moving farther away from our workplaces for bigger houses) and as cities (when considering the relative benefits of highways versus public transit, and the cost of infrastructure that allows biking and walking),” he adds. “This sort of research emphasizes just how important alternate forms of transportation might be.” 

You can read all the articles in Stromberg’s series on commuting on the Vox website.

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