A long commute isn’t just a boring waste of time, it’s also bad for your health. According to Joseph Stromberg in Vox, it’s especially bad news if you’re commuting by car:
“Given everything we’ve recently learned about the health problems linked to sitting all day at work, it might not be a huge surprise that a long, sedentary commute is also associated with several different health problems, including obesity.”
Unlike office work, which allows for such innovations as the standing desk, driving offers no alternative but the sedentary position. Moreover, the evidence is that it has a suppressing effect on exercise after the journey is over:
“…most people seem to lose their willpower to exercise after sitting in traffic for long stretches of time.
“Economist Thomas James Christian analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey and found that people who spent more time commuting consistently spent less time exercising, sleeping, and making food at home. They were also more likely to buy ‘non-grocery food purchases’ (i.e., fast food or takeout).”
One might assume that this because a long commute doesn’t leave enough time for going to the gym or cooking a proper meal, but it’s worse than that:
“Interestingly, long commutes are more likely to cut into these ‘health-promoting behaviors’ than long workdays alone. It seems there’s something specific about a long commute tacked on to the end of a workday that drains us of the willpower to exercise or eat right.”
It doesn’t help that driving is both sedentary and stressful – an especially unhealthy combination:
“One reason commutes are so stressful, economists say, is the unpredictability and lack of control. Not only are you spending lots of time in your car, but you’re also facing stress when you hit a traffic jam and worry that you’ll be late for work or to pick up your kid.”
This may be why the negative health impacts don’t stop at obesity:
“…people with long commutes tended to have higher blood pressure – even after controlling for exercise. And a Gallup poll of 173,581 US workers, meanwhile, found that those who commute more than one hour each way are more likely to have chronic back or neck pain.”
Stromberg cites further evidence showing that harm isn’t limited to physical health:
“…in a recent British government study, workers with commutes longer than an hour reported feeling more anxious, less happy, and less satisfied with life, and were less likely to state that their daily activities were worthwhile as a whole.”
So there it is – long commutes, especially by car, are unhealthy and dispiriting. Stromberg shows that at least some of these ill-effects can be counteracted by “any sort of human contact”. This could involve car sharing or, for users of public transport, the unthinkably un-British option of chatting to fellow passengers.
At the level of public policy, we need to think about the way that different patterns of house building impact on the working day. The American model of sprawling, car-dependent ‘exurbs’ might look like an easy option (if you can get the land), but for a healthier, happier country we need bring homes and workplaces closer together.