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Longer commutes could be bad for your health

If a long commute to work wasn’t already bad enough, new research has revealed that it may also be bad for your health.

An analysis of over 4,200 residents living and working in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, Texas metropolitan areas revealed that long periods of time commuting to and from work are associated with higher weight and lower fitness levels.

“Previous studies have looked at how sedentary behavior – such as TV viewing and time spent driving – affects health,” Christine Hoehner, assistant professor in the division of public health sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and lead investigator, told FoxNews.com.  “So we wanted to hone in on commuting distance specifically, because it’s such an important aspect of people’s daily routines.”

Hoehner and her team mapped the distance between each participant’s home address and work address, then associated each individual’s commuting distance with such variables as the person's BMI, waist circumference, cholesterol, blood pressure and more.  The study also asked participants to self-report information regarding fitness and physical activity.  

Overall, those who drove longer distances had higher BMIs, waist circumferences and blood pressure. Long distance commuters also reported decreased cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) and less frequent moderate to vigorous physical exercise.  Increased weight, high blood pressure and low levels of fitness can increase a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and kidney failure.

While the results do not show that commuting specifically contributes to these adverse health effects, the researchers feel that it’s possible more time in the car takes away from time people can spend in the gym.   Hoehner said it’s also possible that these findings highlight differences in lifestyles of longer commuters versus short commuters.

“Perhaps people who commute longer distances have a worse diet,” Heohner theorized.  “They may have less discretionary time to cook meals and are more likely to eat fast food.   It could also relate to sleep.  If they have less discretionary time to work out, they probably have less time to sleep as well.”

Another interesting aspect of the research involved participants’ blood pressure levels – possibly revealing that stress could play an important role in explaining the worse health of commuters.

“Associations with commuting distance and obesity weakened after we accounted for physical activity,” said Hoehner.  “So the fact that people who live farther from work weigh more could be because they’re not as physically active.  But when it came to increased blood pressure, we still saw an association after accounting for physical activity.  So people who are exposed more to traffic and that daily hassle – it could lead to chronic stress which could be a possible mechanism for these health problems.”

According to a 2009 report from the American Community Survey, over 86 percent of workers commute to the office by car, train or bus, and the average commute lasts about 25 minutes.  With such a large percentage of people sitting on their way to work, Hoehner hopes both employers and employees will reexamine their routines and practices.

“Work sites can play a role by allowing more flexible in and out times so people can drive to work outside rush hour, or they can allow physical activity breaks during the day,” Hoehner said.  “Or if it’s possible for people who live closer to work to walk or bike, there’s been health benefits associated with active commuting.

“You can’t tell people to move,” Hoehner added.  “But the main message for people who live a long way from work or sit at work: Find ways to build physical activity into you day or break up your sitting times.”