Trains, Pains, and Automobiles: Your Commute Influences Your Health

By | March 4, 2015
Image: "Outbound J train summer evening commute - patch pano." Creative Commons Copyright by Stephen L. Harlow. Some rights reserved.

Photo by p0ps Harlow

I’ve been commuting since I was in high school, when I had to take the F train to Coney Island  to switch for the B train to Bay 50th. After college, it was a long schlep from Brooklyn to Manhattan, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other passengers in a stiflingly hot subway car. Fast forward to my California days, forfeiting 90 minutes in each direction sitting in traffic on the 101, arriving at work drained and, later, missing dinner with the family. Then a new job I could ride my bike to, over a hill in Sonoma County, burning 500 calories each way! I can testify firsthand to the contrasting health effects of long commutes compared to short commutes — and active commuting compared to passive. But don’t take it from me…

  • A 2014 Canadian study showed that people with long car commutes committed less time to physical activity and reported lower levels of life satisfaction. The study found that well-being was not only related to the length of time spent commuting, but also to the quality of the commute — specifically, the level of traffic congestion.
  • An analysis in 2009 found significant evidence that commuters trade off commute time for exercise, sleep, and time spent preparing meals.
  • A study of commuters who take the train into Manhattan found that longer duration commutes are linked to more intense perceived stress, higher levels of stress hormones, and impaired task performance at the end of the commute.
  • A study of car commuters in three Texas cities found that longer commutes were associated with high blood pressure, excessive waist circumference, depression, anxiety, and social isolation.
  • Gallup survey found that as time spent commuting increases, so do the odds of having elevated cholesterol, obesity, and head or neck discomfort. The findings were independent of full-time/part-time status, education, age, and income level.
  • A recent British study found that walking, bicycling and using public transportation all were better for mental health compared to commuting by car, and the researchers concluded that their study complemented previous findings  specifically linking driving with a host of negative health effects.

Commute time isn’t dictated exclusively by distance between home and work. Many factors are at play, as noted in a recent national report on the topic. Time of departure (think rush hour vs. off-hours), as well as the availability, capacity, and performance of public transportation play a role. Some workers, certainly, have some control over their commute based on choice of residence and their commuting preferences (public transportation, driving, carpooling, walking or bicycling, and so forth).

But many employers are positioned to have a meaningful influence on employees’ commutes and, consequently, their health. While the ultimate goal may be to restructure the built environment so that residences and workplaces are closer and bicycling, walking, and rapid transit are more prevalent — employers should step up in their communities to help make this happen — in the interim employers can:

  1. Encourage work-from-home.
  2. Allow flexible schedules to help employees avoid rush hour.
  3. Subsidize employees’ public transportation expenses.
  4. Provide employees with opportunities for physical activity on-the-job to counteract the “lost opportunity” for exercise they experience during their commute.

As Gallup concluded in the summary of their survey on the ill-effects of commuting:

The results imply that many employers may need to reevaluate their options for helping workers manage those effects, particularly in light of the costs associated with low wellbeing.


According to Commuting in America 2013: The National Report on Commuting Patterns and Trends, average commute duration barely changed from 2000 to 2011, hovering around 25 minutes. 8.1 percent of commuters take 60 minutes or longer to reach their workplace. The Northeast is the outlier, with more than 12 percent traveling more than 60 minutes and almost 4 percent traveling more than 90 minutes. Commutes longer than 60 minutes make up 25.5 percent of all commuting time.

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