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The Health Risks of Long Commutes: Why Routine Long Car Rides Can be Hazardous to Your Health

Millions of Americans commute an average of 25.5 minutes each way to work each day, but for increasing numbers of workers that number is growing -- a lot.

About 3.3 million Americans are "stretch commuters," meaning they travel 50 miles or more each way to get to and from work, according to the National Household Travel Survey released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Of these, 19 percent travel at least 100 miles to work and 6 percent have earned the designation of "super-stretch commuters," traveling 200 miles to work each way.


Commuters experience stress levels higher than those experienced by fighter pilots going into combat and police officers facing rioting mobs, a Hewlett Packard study found.

Ideally, most people would like to have a commute time more like those in Wichita, Kansa, which enjoys the shortest average commute time in the nation (out of cities with 250,000 people or more), just 16.5 minutes each way.

However, people must work where the jobs are, i.e. big cities, but are willing to endure a commute so they can avoid the crowds and expenses of city life in favor of a more serene suburban home.

"We now have 60 million people living in non-metro areas. And we have people willing to commute ultra-long distances. It signals a substantial change coming in the way we commute," says Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant.

"You keep thinking that there's got to be some kind of tapering off [in commuting distances]," he says. "But it's hard to see any sign of an end."

Of course, a long commute does have a price. Aside from extra costs in gas/transportation, and all the time it takes, long commutes can have the following negative impacts on your health.

Long Commutes are Stressful

It's no secret that sitting in traffic is stressful, but when you multiply that stress by twice a day, five days a week -- and add on "super-stretch" commutes -- that stress can become unbearable.

In a UK survey by the International Stress Management Association of over 400 people, 44 percent said that rush-hour traffic was the most stressful part of their life.

"When somebody becomes stressed their blood pressure goes up, their heart rate increases, their stomach acid increases. This shuts down the intestines, which stops them from digesting food properly. Their shoulders become tense and they get headaches," said Maggie Fuller, a corporate stress counselor.

Over time, stress will take a toll on your health. It wears down your immune system, contributes to chronic disease and has even been found to cause weight gain in women. It's no wonder stress is responsible for 75 percent to 90 percent of U.S. doctor visits, according to the American Institute for Stress.

Trouble Sleeping? Obese? High Blood Pressure? Long Commute may be to Blame

A study by researchers at the New York University Sleep Disorder Center found that long commuters -- those who travel one hour and 15 minutes or longer -- have more sleep disorders and other health problems than the general population.

"This population, [commuters on] the railroad, had more than 50 percent of folks saying they had something wrong, and that they were sleepy. And that's a little bit excessive," said Dr. Joyce Walsleben, director of the Center.

"Those with long commutes -- which we figured in as about 75 minutes or longer -- seemed to be more obese and they seemed to have more hypertension, irrespective of their obesity," she said.

Commuter Amnesia

And the risks don't end there. When stress levels of UK commuters were monitored via blood pressure and heart rate, a study conducted by Hewlett Packard found they were higher than those "experienced by fighter pilots going into combat and police officers facing rioting mobs."

Perhaps more alarming, the study revealed that the pressure and fatigue experienced even during short commutes may result in a phenomenon known as "Commuter Amnesia," in which the mind temporarily switches off.

Reportedly, this is a defense mechanism that occurs to relieve some of the stress of the commute. Said psychologist Dr. David Lewis, who analyzed the study's results:


Long commuters, even those who travel by rail, are more likely to have sleep disorders than the general population.

'This is time lost out of their lives. Since many people spend at least a working day each week traveling to and from their jobs, it means over a working lifetime commuters could be obliterating some three years of their lives! People suffering from even small levels of stress and discomfort during their journey will experience Commuter Amnesia and unless something remarkable occurs they will remember absolutely nothing about their journey.''

What Can You Do? Try These Five Simple Tips

One option to help you avoid the daily commute is to ask your employer about telecommuting. Many professions can now be performed from home, via phone, computer and fax machine, at least part of the time, and your employer may be open to the change.

Another, more drastic, option is to move your location closer to the office, but this is not feasible (or desirable) for many. So, unfortunately, not everyone can cut out their commute time, or even cut it in half.

What you can do, though, is try to make your commute less stressful using these five simple tips from a past article:

  1. Drive the Unbeaten Paths
    According to a study by Ohio State, study participants were frustrated when driving down industrial routes, but calm when driving on scenic routes. Whenever possible, trade in busy interstates and unsightly travel routes for the "road less traveled."

  2. Turn Off the Radio
    And turn on a soothing jazz CD -- something relaxing enough to help you feel calm, but not so soft as to make you fall asleep. Believe us, you won't miss the shock jocks, screaming morning and afternoon DJs, local news about murders and overplayed commercial segments one bit.

  3. Breathe Deeply
    Deep breathing is one of the easiest and most natural -- yet most often overlooked -- stress relief methods out there. Take in a deep breath through your nose, then exhale through your mouth, counting for about four seconds on each phase (in and out). Repeat this about 20 or 30 times.

    When you start to breathe deeply on a regular basis, you'll notice how little you were actually breathing before, and how taking deep breathes, which increases oxygen levels in your body, is naturally calming.

  4. Add Natural Scents to Your Vehicle
    Said Sue Nicholson, head of campaigns for the British RAC Foundation, a motoring organization, "It's astounding how much the smell in a car can affect a driver's mood and actions." Certain scents, like fast food wrappers and pastry, can actually irritate a driver, but others help a driver feel calm, yet alert. While driving, the most calming scents for reducing stress while still staying alert include:

    • Peppermint and cinnamon: They improve concentration levels and make drivers less irritable.

    • Lemon and coffee: These, too, help drivers achieve high concentration levels and clear thinking.

    • Sea ozone: A breath of salty sea air may make drivers breathe deeply, which helps relieve stress, relax the muscles and calm the mind.

  5. Be a Courteous Driver
    It's easy to get caught up in trying to "one-up" an aggressive driver, but doing so is a surefire way to add unnecessary stress to your life. If you notice an aggressive driver who is weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating, etc., don't challenge them and avoid them if necessary. And, of course, don't be an aggressive driver yourself.

Recommended Reading

Working Long Hours Now Proven to Kill You: How to Work Smarter, Not Longer

The Gender Income Gap: Are Women Really Making Less than Men for the Same Job?


Bureau of Transportation Statistics

USA Today: Think Your Commute is Tough

BBC News: Commuting is 'Biggest Stress'

CNN: Sudy: Long daily commutes can increase risk of sleep disorders

Hewlett Packard: Commuting Really is Bad for Your Health

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