Is Your Commute a Drag on Your Health?

by Wellness Editor – MH

Many people reading this article are well familiar with extended commutes to work. Whether you’re driving a car or taking public transportation, spending hours each week traveling to and from your job can certainly be a mental drain. It isn’t just your emotional wellbeing that suffers from long commutes; evidence suggests that all of that back-and-forth travel to work may have repercussions for your physical health.

Commuting by the Numbers

According to the US Census Bureau, the average American worker spends 25.5 minutes per day commuting to work. Of course, this figure only tells one-half of the story; when the time spent traveling home is added to the equation, the typical worker in the United States spends roughly 200 hours commuting each year. Furthermore, those that drive to the office must often contend with nightmarish traffic; research estimates that Americans spend 38 hours annually mired in traffic delays.

It’s easy to see why all of this work-related travel can be so stressful. Imagine getting up early for yet another long trek to work, only to wind up in the middle of a seemingly endless traffic jam. What may come as a surprise is that commuting may also leave a mark on both your blood pressure and waistline.

Commutes, Blood Pressure and Weight Gain

A study released in 2012 reported that people who commute significant distances to work are more likely to have higher blood pressure (hypertension) and/or be obese. When compared to those with less time-consuming work commutes, workers who lived more than 10 miles from their place of employment had a greater risk of hypertension. Obesity was noted to be much more prevalent among subjects who routinely traversed more than 15 miles to work. The study was authored by a research team from Washington University in St. Louis, and was published in the June 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Both high blood pressure and obesity can trigger the onset of serious medical problems. Strokes and heart disease, two of the most common causes of death in the United States, tend to afflict those with elevated blood pressure readings. Likewise, obesity has been linked to coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis and even certain types of cancer.

Longer commutes leave workers with less time for non-work activities, including exercise. This likely explains the findings of the study, which tracked nearly 4300 adults living in twelve metropolitan Texas counties. The subjects were monitored from 2000 to 2007; roughly half of the participants had a commute of at least ten miles each way, whereas nearly one-fifth had to travel more than 20 miles just to get to work.

More Stress, Less Energy… and a Shorter Life?

In addition to the Washington University at St. Louis study, Swedish researchers have also found that long distances between work and home might pose a health risk. These researchers noted that people with lengthy commutes encountered greater amounts of stress and exhaustion on a regular basis. Such subjects were also more prone to missing work days, and were observed to be in poorer health than those who walked or cycled to work.

About 21,000 workers aged 18 to 65 participated in the study. While the researchers could not conclusively link work commutes to health problems, they did stress that “more research needs to be done to identify how exactly commuting is related to the ill health we observed […].” The report was published in its entirety in the October 30, 2011 issue of the online journal BMC Public Health.

Another Swedish study, released roughly two years later, concluded that commutes could cause even more troublesome problems. After reviewing data from nearly 60,000 workers, the study’s authors reported that heart disease, stress and high blood pressure were more common in those who traveled more than 30 miles to work each day. The impact of commuting was felt particularly hard among female workers with low levels of income and/or education; the more time these women spent commuting to work, the more likely they were to die an early death.

It’s no secret that many workers would doubtlessly love to slash the length of their commutes. For many people, however, a variety of factors make this goal all but impossible. This doesn’t mean that people who can’t adjust their commuting routines are destined to suffer declining health; proper diet and exercise are both time-tested means of keeping the body healthy.

The US Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines can be found at this link: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2010.asp

As for physical activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for exercise are shown below:

 

Adults Aged 18 to 64 (Link: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html)

Two hours and thrity minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).

OR

1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., jogging or running) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).

OR

An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).

 

The preceding recommendations also apply to those aged 65 and over who “are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions.”

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