Is commuting a threat to your health?

Your commute could be very dangerous to your health.One of the biggest threats to well-being may be something you do twice every day: Commute. Research has indicated that commuting is linked to various mental and physical health issues ranging from obesity to depression. While it seems all types of commutes are unhealthy, it appears getting to work by car is perhaps the worst. In response to these disheartening findings, many have begun to commute on bike or by foot, though this is really only an option for urban residents. As urban sprawl forces longer commutes, those with a nursing career or who are enrolled in a practical nursing program are likely to encounter more patients with symptoms of chronic commuting.

The Health Risks of Commuting

The link between long commutes and health has been a topic of much study in the past five years. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index surveyed over 170,000 working adults from 2009-2010 about their health and well-being.1 The data was then compiled into an index that measures relative amounts of well-being on a 100 point scale. From this data much can be discovered, but the most interesting analysis for the present discussion is the correlation between commuting time and a person’s average well-being.

It was found that those who commute more than 90 minutes one-way had an average index score of 63.9. Meanwhile, those living within 10 minutes of their work had a much higher average index score of 69.2.1 What is even more interesting is the fact that there was a correlation between how far away an individual lived from their office and their well-being index score. While correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation, it should encourage us to investigate the relationship further.

Indeed, when examined closer, one finds all kinds of interesting connections between health and commute time. While the average American commute is 23 minutes, most metro areas report higher commuting times.1 This is most likely the result of congestion and volume due to the larger populations of those areas. With these higher commuting times comes a host of other health problems, including:

  • High cholesterol: While only 20 percent of those living within 10 minutes of their workplace report being diagnosed with high cholesterol, that number shoots up to 27 percent of those who live between 91 and 120 minutes from work.1
  • Obesity: Of those with the shortest commutes, only 20 percent have a body-mass index above the obesity level. Meanwhile, 30 percent of those living more than 90 minutes away from work qualify as obese.1
  • Chronic pain: In the 12 months prior to the survey, only 24 percent of those with short commutes reported having recurrent neck and back pain. Meanwhile, 33 percent of those with the longest commutes reported suffering from such chronic pain.1

In addition to these physical symptoms, long commutes also have a negative effect when it comes to feeling well-rested and experiencing enjoyment the following day. Clearly, long commutes have horrible consequences on physical and emotional health.  In fact, they are so bad across the board that it makes you wonder why anyone would put up with them. The reason is that living in suburban neighborhoods often gives you more bang for your buck. You are able to get a bigger house with more perks in the suburbs than you could in the city for the same amount of money. However, the tradeoff may not be worth it. The time and health costs of your commute are so high, in fact, that researchers have found that a 40 percent increase in salary would be necessary to account for an hour-increase in commute.2

Parking the Cars

Since driving to and from work so much has been shown to have several negative effects on the body and mind, many have sought to find ways to make their commute less harmful. The most popular methods of going car-free are walking and biking – though these are only options in urban centers. Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, New York City and San Francisco top the list of most car-less commuters.3

Unfortunately, despite the healthful benefits of a daily walk, the nation on the whole seems to be giving up on getting to work by foot. The national percentage of walkers hit a high in the 1980s at 5.6 percent but has since fallen to an even 3 percent. However, this decline in walkers has been offset by a sharp uptick in the number of bikers that live in major cities – a national increase of 60 percent over the last 10 years.3

Commuting takes up a significant portion of our time and is contributing to our health problems as a nation. Walking and biking instead of driving may help to assuage some of the harmful effects of sitting in the car for upward of an hour every day. Nursing careers are already stressful enough, so be sure to do yourself a favor and find an apartment within walking or biking distance from your home. The less time you spend commuting in a car, the better.

1“Wellbeing Lower Among Workers With Long Commutes,” Gallup Well-Being, Aug. 13, 2010, http://www.gallup.com/poll/142142/wellbeing-lower-among-workers-long-commutes.aspx

2“Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” Institute for Empirical Research in Economics – University of Zurich, Aug. 23, 2004, http://ideas.repec.org/p/zur/iewwpx/151.html

3“The Cities Where Americans Bike and Walk to Work,” The Atlantic, May 8, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/americas-emerging-love-affair-with-bikes/361939/ 

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