Commuting by car, the way that 80% of Canadians get to their place of work, can be bad for your health. And the longer your commute, the worse the effects.
In 2011, the average Canadian spent slightly less than an hour commuting each workday, while almost one in five of us spent almost double that time travelling to and from work.
All this travel time makes squeezing a day’s worth of work, errands, leisure and family responsibilities into your day more difficult and affects your overall quality of life.
Those are the findings of a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo. Margo Hilbrecht, associate director of research who oversees the Canadian Index of Wellbeing at that university, led a study published two years ago that found commuters reported lower satisfaction with the quality of their lives. However, the study unearthed one exception to that rule: commuters who included physical activity in their daily lives felt they were better off.
“All things being equal,” Hilbrecht says, “the [commuters who] find time for physically active leisure have better life satisfaction and report lower time pressures.”
In other words, she adds, adding some physical activity to your day can offset the costs of commuting. Fitting in a walk at lunchtime or intentionally parking a few blocks away from work to encourage movement are two good ways to mitigate the negative effects of commuting.
And what are those negative effects? Research from the U.S. indicates that commuting increases our blood pressure and stress levels almost immediately. And your daily drive can affect your weight. Hilbrecht says that car commuters tend to have higher body-mass index and waist circumference than non-commuters.
There’s more. According to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, commuting more than 16 kilometres each way translates into an immediate spike in blood sugar (which can lead to diabetes) and cholesterol levels (a sign of heart disease) and, over time, creates a permanently higher level on both fronts. Other detrimental effects include sleep disturbances, back pain and depression.
So, other than quitting your job and trying to find another closer to home, what can you do to ensure your commute isn’t killing you slowly?
The more time you spend commuting, Hilbrecht says, the less time you think you have for exercise. So, make exercise a priority – for yourself and for your team.
Employers can offer flextime options for staff, thus making the building of exercise into their workday easier, or provide work-from-home opportunities.
Other research has found that commuters tend to have higher levels of illness-related work absences, so tackling this problem can make good business sense.
The quality of a commute also matters. “More obstacles [such as traffic jams and construction] lead to increased frustration, negative moods and decreased satisfaction with [survey participants’] jobs,” Hilbrecht says.
To counteract this effect, try to get on a country road for at least some of your commute and use your GPS device to detect construction delays, she advises.
Meanwhile, research from the U.K. indicates that your commuting attitude matters. And what you do in your car can affect the quality of your commute. Look at your trip as an opportunity for some “me time” – listening to your favourite music or an audiobook, or socializing (if carpooling). That approach is particularly valued by women, Hilbrecht says, whose commutes tend to be longer because they often schedule more stops related to domestic responsibilities.
Still, your commute has value as a buffer between home and work. Hilbrecht refers to a study that asked: “If you could teleport yourself to and from work, would you?” Few, it turns out, would.
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