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Longer Commutes Drive Up Health Risks

< May. 09, 2012 > -- How long is your daily commute? If you drive at least 10 miles to work, you may be putting yourself at risk for high blood pressure. More than 15 miles? Your risk for obesity increases.

Photo of traffic jam on a highway

That's the conclusion of researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

One reason for the increased health risks may be that commute time eats into exercise time. Regular exercise helps prevent high blood pressure and obesity, as well as other health problems.

The number of U.S. workers commuting by car nearly tripled between 1960 and 2000, rising from 41 million to almost 113 million. The average commute distance lengthened from about nine miles in 1983 to more than 12 in 2001.

Daily trek

For the current study, the researchers looked at nearly 4,300 workers in Texas who commuted daily and computed their odds for certain health risk factors. None of the participants had a history of heart attack, stroke, or diabetes, and none was pregnant.

At some point during the study, which lasted from 2000 to 2007, the researchers did a comprehensive medical exam on each participant. Each person had his or her heart and lung fitness assessed via treadmill tests and underwent other testing, including lab and body composition. All reported how much daily exercise they got during the three months before the study.

"What we found ... is that long commutes can take away from exercise and are associated with high blood pressure, higher weight, and generally lower fitness levels," says lead author Christine Hoehner, Ph.D. "This may make a lot of sense, because it's extremely intuitive. But it nonetheless suggests that longer commutes are really getting under the skin and affecting people's health."

More miles, more problems

Those who commuted farthest had lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, a higher body mass index, a wider girth, and higher blood pressure.

This held true even after the researchers took into account any time spent exercising. This suggests that there is something about the commute itself - beyond its impact in lowering exercise rates - that harms cardiovascular health.

Perhaps people who commute long distances simply burn fewer calories overall each day than workers with short commutes, Dr. Hoehner speculates. "Although we didn't measure it, stress is also a possible mechanism at play, especially if commuters are faced with travel congestion," she says.

A moving message

So, you're not about to move or look for another job to cut your risks. What can you do?

"The message here is that people need to find creative ways to build physical activity into their days," Dr. Hoehner says. "And that could be as simple as walking more throughout the day, whenever one can. That could be made more feasible if offices were to encourage physical-activity breaks during the day, and perhaps even flex time so people can drive to work outside rush hour."

The study was published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this website.

Work That Stretch!

If you're stuck behind a desk for hours each workday, you can do some simple exercises while sitting or standing. No special skills or equipment is needed. One of the simplest exercises, for instance, is to just lean back in your chair and stretch.

Exercising at your desk won't give you a cardio workout or build strength, but it will ease muscle tension and stress - and improve flexibility.

Here are some ideas:

  • Stretch every hour or so. Get up and walk around, even if it's just to a filing cabinet. Sitting for long periods puts stress on the lower back, and leads to muscle atrophy and a loss of flexibility.

  • Stretch your wrist muscles occasionally and take short breaks to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful wrist malady caused by repetitive movement.

  • Stretch slowly and use the full range of motion. Sometimes joints won't move quickly through a full range of motion, so if you do an exercise too quickly, you won't get the full benefit. You also risk pulling a muscle if you stretch too quickly.

  • If possible, take a 10-minute walk in between work projects. Or use your lunch break to walk around the block.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Journal of Preventive Medicine - Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Metabolic Risk

CDC - Adding Physical Activity to Your Life

NIH - Weight-control Information Network - Tips to Help You Get Active