The Damage of a Long Commute–Putting Your Life in Danger?

Posted on May 11, 2012 by

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(image by EA)

I have a pretty good commute, all things considered. I have to move myself from my upstairs, down one–possibly two, depending on where I am at the moment–flights, propel myself around a corner, open a door, and deposit myself on my chair.It’s got a lot going for it–particularly in the winter when I don’t have to dig out my car, garb myself in mittens, scarf and boots, or even wear a sweater. I’d say it’s about a–I’m estimating here–3.5 second commute, on a slow traffic day, when my husband and I cross paths on the stairs.

But that’s not the experience for the vast majority of Americans, who commuted an average of 25 minutes, according to a 2007 NPR piece, which points out that that’s 9 full days behind the wheel a year. But first, that doesn’t account for commutes in places like New York city, or Boston, or Chicago. And second, you can see how far up that number has gone since NPR surveyed, in the more up-to-date infographic.

I’m a softie for infographics, and I found this one particularly illuminating about the havoc wreaked on our health by the ever-growing length of commutes. Let’s use it as a starting place. . .and meet on the other side for some more facts about how your commute is killing you (isn’t that a great title for these articles? Nothing like it to put the fear of God in you.).

Killer Commute
Created by: CollegeAtHome.com

© 2012 College@Home

(I always wondered what percentage of drivers gave the finger! When I went to visit my daughter in Queens, NY, it seemed more like 85% or more. And in terms of yelling, just yesterday I was crossing the street when an enraged man leaned out his window to scream at another driver, “You’re too dumb to drive!” He told him, no?)

A recent study that’s been getting a lot of play supports the damage of a long schlep to and from work.

Christine Hoehner, Public Health Sciences Assistant Professor Department of Surgery  at Washington University School of Medicine, and colleagues studied 4,297 commuters in the Dallas-Forth Worth and Austin metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2007. They gave them complete physicals, and then set them off on their fairly un-merry ways to continue commuting.

One key finding was that those who drove longer distances consistently reported doing less exercise. This isn’t that earthshattering to me–the less free time you have, the less likely you’ll be spending it fighting for access to the stairmaster at the gym. And at first I wasn’t that impressed with the statistic either:

76% of people who worked within five miles of home averaged at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigours exercise per day, as opposed to 70% of those who commuted 30 miles or more, round-trip.

Truthfully, that didn’t sound like a staggering difference–but the health differences between short and long commuters gave the lie to my cynicism.

Perhaps as a result of less exercise, but perhaps as the body’s own stress response, longer commuters also had lower cardiorespiratory fitness, greater body mass index (calculated from weight and height, it’s a good indication of overweightness, if that’s a word), larger waist circumference, and higher blood pressure.

And a few miles could make a big difference:

Those who live over 10 miles from work are more likely to have high blood pressure; and those who commute more than 15 miles (each way), writes Hoehner

were associated with lower odds of meeting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommendations and achieving high fıtness levels and with higher odds of obesity and central adiposity.

In fact, said Hoehner in a statement, “For every 10-mile increase in your driving distance, your BMI [body-mass index] rises by .17 units.”

Fairly alarming.

Thus those who commuted 30 miles or more were more likely to be obese (40-inch waist sizes for men, 35-inches for women).

Interestingly enough, the obesity could not solely be accounted for on the basis of decreased exercise. In a statement, Hoehner said,

Both BMI and waist circumference were associated with commuting distance even  after adjustment of physical activity and CRF, suggesting that a longer  commuting distance may lead to a reduction in overall energy expenditure [italics mine].

Perhaps people are just simply too exhausted after their draining commutes to take the stairs instead of the elevator, or park a longer distance away in the lot and walk the extra feet to the office builing. It becomes a self-perpetuating problem, as the increased weight one puts on makes these activities harder still.

Research by Thomas James Christian of Brown University,  found that  each extra minute of commuting is associated with “a 0.0257 minute exercise time reduction, a 0.0387 minute food preparation time reduction [implying more purchasing of fast food], and a 0.2205 minute sleep time reduction.” Commuting seems to suck time away from so many of the life-maintenance activities that keep us healthy and fight disease.

And we’ve hardly addressed blood pressure.

Noted Matt McMillen in Health.com

Blood pressure appeared to be even more sensitive to commuting distance. Even people whose commute was just 20 miles round-trip had an increased risk of elevated blood pressure, which the researchers defined as the so-called pre-hypertension stage and higher.

Remember that this increased blood pressure risk starts with commutes as small as 10 miles. It seems the act of commuting is so stresful that, whether or not exercise is reduced, the traveling takes its toll on the body.

In fact, a 2009 study found that people were more three times more likely to have a heart attack after having been in a traffic jam than otherwise (although there was a question there about whether pollution may have played a role, as well).

Other studies also implicate the stress of traffic in a number of negative results.

“Commuting and life satisfaction in Germany” revealed that people with long commutes are “systematically worse off and report significantly lower life satisfaction,” and the same authors in “Stress that doesn’t pay: The commuting paradox”  found that, if the commute is an hour each way, one would have to make 40% more salary to be as ‘satisfied’ with life as a one who doesn’t commute at all.

I’d love to say more about that, but was stymied by running into formulas that looked like they were solving the origins of man, with coefficients I wasn’t terribly familiar with. For example, Alan Krueger (among the 50 highest rank economists in the world), who would run the study below on Texas women with bad attitudes toward commuting, wrote in an article about the “Affective similarity of time allocation” some formulas that I believe applied to these German studies (don’t quote me on that), and the affective equation for week 1 is on top, for week 2 is below (getting this?), with the reliability factor (this gets even better), below that.

affective equation week 1

affective equation week 2

Clear as mud? The German formulas seemed to be based on this (again–as far as I can tell, which isn’t that far), and, having looked at them long and hard, I determined I had little more input into this topic except to take the researchers at their word about long commuters being ‘less satisfied,’ and to try to move on gracefully.

Another study, once again back in the  heart of Texas, surveyed 900 women and determined that commuting was–hands down–”among the worst moments of the day.” [Of interest, sex got rated as one of the most enjoyable. I wonder how many complicated equations it took to figure that  out.]

According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 1 in 3 employees who commute for 90 minutes or more claim they  have had a neck or back condition that has caused pain within the past 12 months.

Annie Lowrey, in a 2011 piece entitled  “Your Commute Is Killing You, quotes Robert Putnam, famed author of Bowling Alone, who asserts that long commutes are significant predictors of social isolation. He:

posits that every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10 percent fewer “social connections.” Those social connections tend to make us feel happy and fulfilled.

And as if high blood pressure, dissatisfaction, neck and back pain, and social isolation weren’t enough, as you see in the infographic, a 2011 Swedish study found that

the risk of separation is 40 percent higher among long-distance commuters than among other people.

So lengthy commutes had been known to cause trouble for a while, and the havoc they wreak is well documented.

So why all the play for Hoehner’s study?

Well, on its website, ABC News quotes Hoehner claims about her research’s novelty:

 Our study is the first to show that long commutes are associated with higher weight, lower fitness levels and higher blood pressure, all of which are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

It’s pretty serious. And there’s not much we can do about our commutes.

What we CAN do is add as much physical activity into the day as possible, within the confines of our job–walking the halls to take a break, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, walking around the parking lot a few times after eating lunch, in addition to working hard to make meals as healthy as possible–perhaps planning in advance with a slow cooker, and cooking on weekends and freezing.

We’ve also got to try to maintain as much of a regular socialization and exercise schedule outside of work as is possible. This includes in a primary position time for our spouses.

It’s difficult–I do know. We’re tired, stressed, not feeling well–perhaps our affective equations (after being checked for reliability) are indicating that we’re not feeling all that happy. But we’ve got to keep pushing. An maybe relocate–either our home or our job.

Our marriages, our mental well-being, our physical health–in fact, our very lives depend on it.

REFERENCES 

Christian, TJ. Opportunity Costs Surrounding Exercise and Dietary Behaviors: Quantifying Trade-offs Between Commuting Time and Health-Related Activities. October 21, 2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1490117 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1490117.

Commuting Drives Up Weight, Blood Pressure

Global News | Commuters at risk for high blood pressure, not just from traffic woes: study

Hoehner CM, et al. Commuting distance, cardiorespiratory fitness, and metabolic risk. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.02.020.

Krueger A, Schkade D. The reliability of subjective well being measures. Journal of Political Economics 2008, 92(8-9):1833-45.

Long Commute? Your Heart and Waistline May Suffer for It

Kahneman D, Krueger AB. Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Economic Perspectives 2006; 20(1):3-24.

Longer commutes may steal health and fitness

Peters A, et al. Times spent in traffic and the onset of myocardial infarction. AHA Meeting 2009.

Stutzer A, Frey BA. Commuting and Life Satisfaction in Germany. Information zur Raumentwicklung 2007; 2(3):179–189. [Note to anyone impressed--this was in English and downloaded as such as a pdf with non further ado after a click on the artice title. I can't even pronounce the journal. Sorry.]

Stutzer A, Frey BS. Stress that doesn’t pay: the commuting paradox. Scandinavian Journal of Economics 2008; 110(2):339–66.

Umeå University. “Long-distance commuters get divorced more often, Swedish study finds.”ScienceDaily, 25 May 2011. Web. 10 May 2012.