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Tuesday 18th June 2019

Long commutes are bad for your health

8th May 2012

Researchers say that people who have a long daily commute to work may be at higher risk of poor health.


Writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that people who commute more than 15 miles to work on a daily basis are more likely to carry fat around the belly, which is harmful for heart health, and more likely to be obese generally.

Compared with a group of commuters who drove less than five miles every day to get to work, the group was also less likely to manage adequate amounts of exercise and physical activity.

A daily drive to work of more than 10 miles was associated with a higher risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure.

According to Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, long commutes put people on track to getting heart disease, elevated blood pressure, higher cholesterol, a higher-than-normal body mass index (BMI) and a larger waist circumference. They were also heading in the direction of diabetes, Steinbaum said.

She warned long-distance commuters to change their lives now, to avoid becoming ill later.

Using satellite tracking to map the shortest road routes between workers' homes and offices, researchers studied more than 4,200 adults who commuted to work in two cities in Texas.

They tested all study participants' capacity for vigorous exercise, and the length of time they were able to exercise for, using a treadmill test.

They also screened them for indicators of heart disease and diabetes, taking comprehensive measurements of their blood sugar levels, cholesterol, total fat, belly fat, and body mass index (BMI) -- a measure of weight in relation to height.

Study subjects also responded to questionnaires regarding how much exercise they did every week, and how intensive were their levels of physical activity.

According to researcher Christine M. Hoehner, assistant professor of public health sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the study has been the first to show that long commutes appear to lessen the amount of exercise people take.

They were also associated with higher weight, lower fitness levels, and higher blood pressure, all of which were strongly linked to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, Hoehner said.

The results show only a correlation between longer commutes and health problems, and do not prove that they cause the problems directly.

People who have to spend a long time driving to and from work could also behave in ways that put them at risk of obesity and inactivity.

But the research suggests that sitting in a car may be even worse for our health than sitting on the sofa, in bed, or in front of a computer.

According to Richard Krasuski,director of adult congenital heart disease services and a staff cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, drivers are at risk of health problems because it is harder for them to take a break from sitting down.

Office workers have been advised in previous studies to get up and stretch or walk about every 15 minutes, but drivers are totally confined to the space they inhabit, he said.

Krasuski, who was not involved in the research, suggests that the lack of ability to move around in a car may contribute to the apparently higher risk factors associated with longer commutes.

Another aspect of commuting which can affect health is the stress experienced during traffic jams, which are often a feature of the daily commute.

Stress floods the body with fight-or-flight hormones which can raise heart rate and blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

And people who spend a lot of time in the car are also more likely to eat unhealthy food there that they bought from drive-through eateries or service stations, according to Thomas Christian, a post-doctoral fellow in economics at Brown University.

Hoehner said that while the exact mechanisms were still unknown, the commuting lifestyle could lead to a poor diet, with commuters more likely to pick up fast food.

Commuters's sleep might also be affected, because they have less time to wind down at the end of each day, he said, which in turn would also affect their weight and blood pressure.

Steinbaum described a long, driving commute as a "perfect storm" for the body. She said that rather than railing against the need to earn a living, people should prioritise their health during their remaining spare time.

She suggested anyone with a long commute and a sedentary job should do everything they could to get more active, including wearing a pedometer and taking the stairs instead of the lift to the office.

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