Longer office hours and pricey inner-city real estate means people spend more time commuting than ever before. According to the 2009 census, Americans spend just over 25 minutes commuting every day. According to the same census, 86 percent of all workers drive to work, while only 5 percent take public transit, and just over 3 percent walk or bike.
Besides boredom, why is a long commute such a big deal? Studies show a time-consuming commute can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Whether you're in a car or taking public transportation, commuting adds stress. Objective and subjective dimensions of travel impedance as determinants of commuting stress. Novaco RW, Stokols D, Milanesi L. American journal of community psychology, 1990, Sep.;18(2):0091-0562. It 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. American journal of preventive medicine, 2008, Jun.;34(3):0749-3797. Women, especially, are prone to the psychological effects of traveling to work (possibly because they often have more household responsibilities).
But what about physical consequences? Studies show that commuting can lead to weight gain by taking up free time that could otherwise 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. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2003, Jul.;35(3):0195-9131. Sitting in a car or train instead of walking or biking can even lead to higher cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI. Commuting distance, cardiorespiratory fitness, and metabolic risk. Hoehner CM, Barlow CE, Allen P. American journal of preventive medicine, 2012, Sep.;42(6):1873-2607.
Your Action Plan
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to improve your commute. Here are 16 tips that'll make the daily trek less stressful and more pleasant.
1. Take the train.
Good news: According to one study, train commuters are less stressed and have better moods than those who drive to work. And, depending on your city, public transportation can often be more reliable than driving—meaning you spend less time commuting. Since commute time is adversely related to overall health and stress levels, that's a good thing.
2. Bring your own entertainment.
Use a train commute to prepare your brain for "work mode." Instead of zoning out or mindlessly thumbing through Instagram, use a book or puzzle to warm up for or cool down from a long day at work.
3. Find your Zen.
Place both feet on the floor, close your 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. We have more advice on how to get started with meditation here.
4. Turn off technology.
Why start working early? Unless you're expecting an important call, refrain from technology during your commute. Rather than answer emails before you hit the door, use the time for yourself. Some public transportation networks also have quiet cars, where riders are asked to avoid talking, listening to loud music, or chatting on cell phones.
5. Snooze between stops.
With someone else's eyes on the road, there’s no reason you shouldn't take a short nap. Nodding off for a few minutes won't help you catch up from a severe sleep deficit, but a few short zzzs can help you feel refreshed and be more productive. Before dozing, make sure you've secured your belongings and maybe even set a short timer so you don't miss your stop.
6. Really (really!) relax.
OK, you can't actually meditate with closed eyes while driving, but you can still practice mindful breathing exercises. For example, progressive relaxation is done by tensing and relaxing each muscle group for five seconds, starting at your feet and continuing up to your face. Combine this with long, slow breaths. Or try one of these other breathing exercises.
7. Learn something new.
8. Change your shoes.
Something as simple as changing from work shoes to well-worn sneaks can make a commute so much better. If you've got a formal dress code at the office (hello, high heels!), switching at the end of the day is not only comfier, but it also helps signal to your brain that the stress of the day is over.
9. Loosen up before the drive.
Sitting in the driver’s seat after a long day in an office chair can have negative physiological effects. Get limber with some stretches before hopping behind the wheel. Certified trainer and Greatist expert Kelvin Gary recommends loosening up your chest and hip flexors, since they are commonly used during a commute. And resist the urge to slump. As with a desk chair, adjust the seat so your posture is upright and there's no strain on your back.
More Commuting Ideas
10. Bike to the office.
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. Preventive medicine, 2010, May.;51(2):1096-0260. If biking isn’t an option, consider cycling to a train or bus station, or meeting a carpool group a few miles from home.
11. Grab a friend.
Spending tons of time alone in the car is not only boring, but it can also cause feelings of isolation and general unhappiness. Instead of commuting alone, find someone 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 ride share or carpool, which has the added bonus of conserving resources, reducing expenses, and cutting down on the wear and tear of your car.
12. 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 bag of unsalted almonds) on hand.
13. Sit straight.
Yes, we all know sitting for long periods of time is the worst. But if you have to sit during your commute, watch your posture. Sit at the edge of your seat, keep your feet flat on the floor (unless you're driving!), draw your 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 during a crowded commute? Apply the same guidelines: Stay square through the shoulders, keep spine straight, and avoid leaning on one hip.
14. Listen to soothing music.
It may be tempting to use high-energy music to wake up in the a.m., but up-tempo tunes can actually make a morning commute more stressful: One survey showed that drivers who listened to heavy metal or loud rock were more prone to road rage and collisions. Plugging in classical or similarly relaxing music can make for a safer and calmer trip.
15. Walk whenever you can.
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 commuter lot in the farthest-away spot. Even taking the stairs to the office instead of the elevator makes a difference.
16. Smell something nicer.
Commuting can be downright stinky. Grab some essential oils and try on-the-go aromatherapy: A drop of lavender or lemon oil can keep anxiety and funky smells at bay. Lemon, lavender, and other plants like basil, oranges, 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, Ito Y. European journal of applied physiology, 2005, Jun.;95(2-3):1439-6319.
Originally published October 2012. Updated April 2016.