Greatist Op-Eds analyze what’s making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. The thoughts expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect Greatist’s outlook.
I used to live in Manhattan. I resided in a closet-less room in a fifth-floor walk-up with mice and roaches, though they never paid their fair share of a very out-of-my-budget rent. When my sister asked if I’d like to move into her 1500-square-foot condo in Connecticut, I said something to the likes of “Oh hell no.” I couldn’t bear the idea of spending a quarter of my day travelling to and from work.
But then I let it marinate. Now, nearly four months later, I live in Connecticut and commute to New York City almost daily. I leave nice-smelling, muted CT at a quarter after 7:00 in the morning, and plop down in my desk chair at a quarter after 9:00. Several hours later, at exactly 5:50, I pack up, walk down 5th Avenue to Grand Central Station, and board the 6:22 express for home. On an average night, key meets door knob just before 8:00 pm.
And I better not mess it up. If I sleep in, I have to wait more than 30 minutes for the next New-York-bound train and I’ll be late for work. If I miscalculate my departure time from Greatist’s 27th street office, I’m stuck with the masses at Grand Central until the next train rolls into Track 11 at 8:07 pm. I’m one of this country’s roughly 600,000 mega-commuters, the crazy people who travel 90 minutes or more and 50 miles or more to work, one way. The national average commute time? According to the most recent census data (collected in 2011), it’s 25.4 minutes.
Long commutes have been referred to as a migraine-inducing life-suck that gets in the way of all things that make humans happy — relaxation, exercise, and sex, to name a few. I don't entirely disagree. Time-consuming commutes royally suck — they chew up the day and wreak havoc on people’s physical and mental health. But sometimes the return outweighs the costs.
Why Commute? The Rationale for a Lengthy Ride
The most extreme commuters hail from San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C., often in the name of higher salaries, cushier digs for less cash, and more flexible work hours Relationship between commuting and health outcomes in a cross-sectional population survey in southern Sweden. Hansson, E., Mattisson, K., Bjork, J., et al. Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Lund University, Lund, Sweden. 2011, Oct.. More than 86 percent of Americans drive to work, while five percent opt for public transportation and a mere three percent walk or bike to the office. According to the Census Bureau, mega commuters are more likely to depart for work before 6:00 am, be male, older, married, make a higher salary, and have a spouse that does not work. Since I’m not a suit-and-tie-wearing, six-figures-earning man with a wife at home preparing me dinner each night, I’m likely not your average mega-commuter.
I joined the relatively small flock of mega-commuters (less than one percent of all commuters) for a number of reasons unrelated to salary or the support of a non-working spouse. New York City is certainly a concrete jungle where dreams are made of, but it’s also incredibly overwhelming. It’s hot, it’s fast-paced, and finding a patch of breathing room is a near-insurmountable task. (It is the most populous city in the United States). And while residing on the Upper East Side meant I could hop a subway just about whenever I wanted to go wherever I pleased (and that my Grandma could refer to me as an “uptown girl”), I expended a far larger chunk of my paycheck toward rent than was remotely sensible.
Before I get too dramatic about the shortcomings of Manhattan living, I should acknowledge how lucky I am to have a job I like (it’s pretty much the reason I’m willing to commute into Manhattan in the first place), and that I could have tried something less extreme than traversing state lines. But there were other factors that increased Connecticut’s appeal. Beyond the ease afforded by moving into a condo previously tenanted by my sister (one which could house approximately 12 of my New York City bedrooms), my move constituted a happy medium. Living 50 miles from work translates to quiet, privacy, and fresh air. It means I’m 60 miles from my boyfriend and 68 from my parents, instead of 101 and 111 respectively. And then there’s the pool, washer and dryer, full-size refrigerator, oven, dishwasher (none of those NYC play kitchen versions), and a garbage disposal — a garbage disposal! Plus, everything I buy — from toothpaste to tomatoes — is significantly less expensive than it was in the city.
At the end of the day, I trade free time for quiet, space, solitude, financial security, and proximity to the people who make me happiest. (And thankfully, I’m one of the nearly 14 million people who work from home once every week or two, which takes the edge off of continuous mega-commuting.) At the ripe old age of 23, a long commute makes sense for me. I can’t speak for everyone on this one, but I’ve found that mega-commuting can in fact be worth it — so long as us commuters continually remind ourselves why we chose to do it in the first place.
A positive mindset can make any daunting task more bearable, but that doesn't mean commutes (both long and short) don't have their downsides. Commuting is, quite literally, a pain in the neck. One in three workers with a 90-minute daily commute has recurrent neck or back problems, according to the 2010 Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index. The same surveys found that 40 percent of employees who spend more than 90 minutes getting home from work experienced worry for a great deal of the previous day. That number drops to 28 percent for those with commutes of 10 minutes or less.
I can’t say that my overall happiness has declined because of my choice to ride the rails, but I do worry about making the right train or getting enough sleep. I’m definitely not alone in this: Reductions in sleep and weekday food preparation are givens for the average mega-commuter Trade-offs between commuting time and health-related activities. Christian, T.J. Center for Gerontology and HealthCare Research, Brown University, Providence, RI. Journal of Urban Health, 2012 Oct;89(5):746-57.. And, at least for me, housekeeping and social plans are generally reserved for weekends. My after-work social routine rarely exceeds a quick chat with one of the conductors.
For some committed commuters, long commutes signal the end not only of their social lives, but also their fitness. Devoting even an hour a day to travel to and from work is reason enough to forfeit or drastically reduce physical activity, which might explain why multiple studies link long commutes to higher rates of obesity and elevated blood pressure levels The link between obesity and the built environment. Evidence from an ecological analysis of obesity and vehicle miles of travel in California. Lopez-Zetina, J., Lee, H., Frills, R. Health Science Department, California State University, Long Beach, California. Health Place, 2006 Dec;12(4):656-64. Commuting distance, cardiorespiratory fitness, and metabolic risk. Hoehner, C.M., Barlow, C.E., Allen, P., et al. Division of Public Health Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis MO. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2012 Jun;42(6):571-8.. Fortunately, I’m lucky to have a flexible-enough work schedule that I can squeeze in a daytime run with coworkers or work out at the gym. But if I didn’t have the opportunity to work out midday, I’m pretty sure my fitness regime would parallel my social life.
What I've learned from making these choices — to skip the gym or to take the late train; to make dinner at 9:30pm or pass on eating til breakfast — is that choosing to spend valuable time on the highway or rails is a test in balancing priorities. For me, all it took was a handwritten pros and cons list to clarify my ultimate decision.
(Also Check Out: How to Commute the Healthy Way)
Most people don’t exactly love the act of commuting to and from work, but there can be definite tradeoffs. I’ve found that a daily commute offers a great opportunity to get things done, catch up on the day’s news and emails, and read. Along with my first train ticket, I bought a Kindle and have since read more than ever. I have time to work on the train without the distraction of the Internet. And darnit, this winter I may even have the chutzpah to pull out my crochet hook and yarn.
For every time I’m bolting through Grand Central, there are the moments of complete disengagement and relief once I’m on the train. There’s the realization that there’s nothing I can do for an hour and a half but read, sleep, or write. Although I’m surrounded by other people, I have a set amount of time to decompress — which is rare (but incredibly necessary) in our hyper-connected world. I will definitely not be a lifetime devotee to Metro-North’s tracks and ties, but for the time being, and with the right mindset, it works.
Are you a mega-commuter? Let us know your reasons for lengthy travel time in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.