Nobody likes waking up in the dark to head to the office, but in this economy, a worker’s gotta do what a worker’s gotta do to bring home the bacon. Longer office hours plus pricey real estate means that people spend more time working (and getting there) than ever before. According to the latest census in 2009, Americans spend on average 25.1 minutes commuting every day. Eighty-six percent of all worker bees fasten their seatbelts, while five percent buddy up on public transportation, and three and a half percent of people walk or bike to the office. In some sprawling cities like Atlanta (where 12.7 percent of commuters spend more than an hour on the road) and Miami, workers face a long voyage to and from the office each day.
Besides getting bored with the Top 40 Hits radio station, why is a long commute such a big deal? Studies show a time-consuming commute can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Read on to learn how to avoid transit-driven problems and make the most out of those daily expeditions.
Weekday Woes — The Need-to-Know
Everyone describes their commute as a figurative pain in the neck, but can it actually have adverse affects on physical health? Turns out, dealing with a long haul to and from the office can cause both physical and mental health woes.
Whether in a car or on public transportation, commuting adds stress Objective and subjective dimensions of travel impedance as determinants of commuting stress. Novaco RW, Stokols D, Milanesi L. University of California, Irvine. Am J Community Psychol. 1990 Apr;18(2):231-57.. Women are especially prone to the psychological effects of traveling to work (perhaps because they sometimes have more responsibilities at home).
Spending a substantial chunk of time on the highway each week? Be prepared for a serious case of FOMO. Commuting can reduce time spent on social interactions, which can make people feel more isolated and depressed Commute time and social capital in the U.S. Besser LM, Marcus M, Frumkin H. Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Amican Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2008 Mar;34(3):207-11.. Some studies even claim that every ten minutes of commuting time costs a person 10 percent of his or her friends.
So what about those physical consequences? Studies show that commuting can lead to weight gain by taking up free time that could be spent on healthy activities like exercising or cooking wholesome meals Objective physical activity of Filipino youth stratified for commuting mode to school. Tudor-Locke C, Ainsworth BE, Adair LS, Popkin BM. Department of Exercise and Wellness, Arizona State University, Mesa, AZ. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2003 Mar;35(3):465-71.. Sitting in a car or train instead of walking or biking to work can even lead to higher cholesterol, blood pressure, and higher BMI Commuting distance, cardiorespiratory fitness, and metabolic risk. Hoehner CM, Barlow CE, Allen P, Schootman M. Division of Public Health Services, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2012 Jun;42(6):571-8.
Happy Travels — Your Action Plan
Whether you take a plane, train, or automobile to work, there are many ways to improve any commute. Here are some tips and tricks to make the daily trek less stressful, more pleasant, and even — dare we say it — fun.
Roll On: Grab that rusty banana-seat 3-speed out of the garage and start pedaling: Studies show people who bike to work take fewer sick days than their driving or train-riding peers The association between commuter cycling and sickness absence. Hendriksen IJ, Simons M, Garre FG, Hildebrandt VH. TNO Quality of Life, Leiden, The Netherlands. Preventative Medicine, 2010 Aug;51(2):132-5.. If biking to the office isn’t an option, consider cycling to a train or bus station, or meeting a carpool group a few miles from home.
Buddy Up: Spending tons of time alone in the car is not only boring, it can be mentally damaging. Commuting alone can cause feelings of isolation and general unhappiness. To reduce the mental health drawbacks, find a buddy to share the drive or ride. People who use public transportation have more frequent and varied social interactions than car commuters. Drivers can reap similar social benefits by setting up a rideshare or carpool. These groups provide commuting pluses like making new friends, conserving resources, and reducing expenses and wear and tear on each individual’s vehicle.
Snack Smart: Unexpected evening traffic jams or delayed trains can quickly turn a great day sour. To prevent a pre-dinner meltdown, get in the habit of keeping a healthy snack (like an apple or a homemade granola bar) on hand.
Take a Seat: Sitting down for long periods of time can have detrimental effects on health, says Greatist Expert Katherine Simmons. Simmons recommends using travel time to develop good posture. Sit at the edge of the seat, keep feet flat on the floor (unless driving!), draw the navel up and in, and lift up through the crown of the head. Hold this anatomically-friendly position for 20 seconds, then relax and repeat. Stuck standing on the subway? Apply the same guidelines to a standing position — stay square through the shoulders, lift from the head, keep the spine straight, and avoid leaning on one hip.
Groove Gently: It may be tempting to use high-energy rock or rap music to wake up in the AM, but up-tempo tunes can actually make a morning commute more stressful: A recent survey showed that listening to heavy metal or loud rock can actually make drivers more prone to road rage and collisions. Plugging in some classical or other relaxing music makes for a safer and more relaxing trip.
Walk it Out: Most commutes involve at least some sitting, so try to walk wherever possible. Hoof it to the train station instead of getting a lift or park the car in the farthest-away spot. Even taking the stairs to the office instead of the elevator makes a difference.
Sniff Serenely: Sometimes commuting can be downright stinky. A neighbor on the train wearing too much cologne, a skunk on the highway, or that stale old-car smell can all make the morning trip unpleasant. Grab some essential oils and try some on-the-go aromatherapy. A drop of lavender or lemon oil can keep anxiety as well as funky smells at bay. Lemon, lavender, and other plants like basil, oranges, and jasmine, and laurel contain linalool, a chemical compound that has a calming effect Sedative effects of the jasmine tea odor and (R)-(-)-linalool, one of its major odor components, on autonomic nerve activity and mood states. Kuroda K, Inoue N, Kubota K, Sugimoto A, Kakuda T, Fushiki T. Laboratory of Nutrition Chemistry, Division of Food Science and Biotechnology, Graduate School of Agriculture, Kyoto University, Kitashirakawa Oiwake-cho, Japan. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005 Oct;95(2-3):107-14.
Good news — train commuters take 30 percent more steps per day than those who drive to work. Staying active is great for health, but line transfers, unpredictable schedules, and an overall lack of control can make taking the train a bummer. Try some of these strategies to make a rail journey more pleasant.
BYO Entertainment: Use a train commute to prepare the brain to get into “work mode.” Instead of zoning out on the train, bring a book or puzzle as to warm up or cool down from a long day at work.
Find Your Zen: Plant those feet on the floor, close the eyes, and breathe deeply. The morning trip to the office can be a great time to get centered before a crazy workday. Start with just a few minutes and increase the length of the session as meditating gets easier. Focus on breathing and staying mindful of the body to start the day on a calm note.
Turn It Off: Why start working early? Unless expecting an important call, try turning train time into a respite from technology. Turn off (or silence) any pocket technologies for a calmer commute. Some public transportation networks have “quiet cars” where riders are asked to avoid talking, listening to loud music, or chatting on cell phones. Not everybody agrees that silence on the train is golden, but some riders find it provides a nice environment to read or think in peace before the hectic workday begins.
Snooze Between Stops: With somebody else’s eyes on the road or tracks, there’s no reason not to take a short nap — as long as it’s not on a neighbor’s shoulder! Nodding off for a few minutes won’t help catch up a severe sleep deficit, but a few short Zzs can help the body refresh. Before nabbing some shut-eye, secure belongings and check the environment for any possible dangers (i.e. opening train doors).
Life in the fast lane? Hardly — driving to work is often the perfect storm of boredom (traffic) and stress (crazy intersections! parking!). Stay alert and relaxed with these tips for tackling the open road.
Really Relax: Don’t try to meditate with closed eyes while cruising on a busy highway! Instead, try mindful breathing exercises to get Zen. Try progressive relaxation to chill out at traffic lights and in jams. Tense and relax each muscle group in the body for five seconds each, starting at the feet and continuing up to the face. Combine the flexing and releasing with long, slow breathing to totally melt tension.
Listen ‘N Learn: Turn that dreaded hour of gridlock into an opportunity to learn something new! Download interesting podcasts, lectures, or courses to make the car a mobile classroom (try mastering a new language!). Plugging into an engaging audiobook can also help the miles fly by.
Pull a Mr. Rogers: Something as simple as changing from work shoes to well-worn sneaks can make a commute so much better. Folks with a long schlep at the end of the day (or a formal work dress code) can also consider bringing sweatpants or a comfy shirt to make the ride that much comfier.
Loosen Up: Sitting pretty in the driver’s seat after a long day in an office chair can have some negative physiological effects. Try getting limber with some stretches before hopping behind the wheel. Greatist Expert Kelvin Gary recommends loosening up the pectoral muscles and hip flexors, since these two are commonly used during a commute. Resist the urge to slump after a long day! As with a desk chair, adjust the seat so posture is upright and there’s no strain on the back.
What’s your favorite commuting strategy? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author at @SophBreene.