Longer Commute, Bigger Waistline

Yet more evidence that your drive to work is making you unhealthy.

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Add to the lengthy body of research on the connection between bad commutes and bad health yet another confirmation: a new study of automobile commuters found that longer trips to and from work correlated with various indicators of poor health, including decreased cardiorespiratory fitness, increased weight, high cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure. Yes, your long commute is literally making you less healthy.

The activity of driving to work should be better thought of as inactivity, and all that time sitting on your butt is slowly eating away at your cardiovascular health – and probably adding to your waistline. Those who have farther to travel tend to see worse results according to the study, which will be published in the June issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study tracked 4,297 people who lived and worked in 11 counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth or Austin, Texas, metropolitan areas, and compared their commuting distances with various medical health indicators, including cardiorespiratory fitness, body mass index, and metabolic risk variables like waist circumference. The longer the commute, the greater the likelihood these health indicators measure up on the fat and sick side of the scale. The researchers also found that people who drove longer distances reported doing less physical activity overall.

And even when the researchers adjusted for each person's physical activity habits and cardiorespiratory fitness, both waistlines and body mass index increased right along with commute distance. Higher blood pressure was observed in commuters driving 10 miles or more to work. Those driving more than 15 miles each way were less likely to meet recommendations for "moderate to vigorous" physical activity and were more likely to be obese.

A study by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that the average commute is about 15 miles each way. As the chart below shows, more than two-thirds of commuters travel 15 miles or less to work. Eleven percent, though, travel more than 30 miles each way.

Driving distance to work among U.S. adults. Source: U.S. Department of Transportation and Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

More than 35 percent of adults in the U.S. are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to American Community Survey data from 2009 [PDF], the average commute in the U.S. was 25.1 minutes (and about half a minute more for those in metropolitan areas). In metros like Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington D.C., the average commute time is more than 30 minutes, some of the highest in the nation. Metros like Lubbock, Texas, and Missoula, Montana, have some of the quickest average commutes at just about 15 minutes each way.

Even on the low end, this translates to a lot of time spent in the driver's seat. If you were to drive the U.S. average 25.1-minute commute two times a day, five times a week for 50 weeks (alas, just a two-week vacation), you'd be spending more than 209 hours commuting a year. Assuming you get a good night's sleep, that's 3.6 percent of your year spent sitting in a car, gassing, braking and, hopefully, turn signaling.

Long commutes were already easy to loathe, but there's still room for further research on this subject. The authors note that future studies would be needed to fully understand whether and how sedentary time during commuting affects health. For example, how is sitting in a car for an hour on your way to work different from sitting in your chair for an hour when you're at work? Or sitting on your couch? Or, instead of sitting in a driver's seat, sitting in a bus seat?

Top image: joyfull / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.