PUBLIC HEALTH
May 16, 2012

How Long is Your Commute?

The length of a person's commute can have a big impact on their health. Sitting is part of it; traffic may be another.

Road rage aside, there's another reason to avoid jobs with a long commute. A study of over 4,000 Texas residents found that people who drove longer distances to work were less active, less physically fit and more likely to be overweight.

The study can't tell if this was due to the extra sitting, stress of driving, air pollution or other factors. But it's another indication that when it comes to health, your car isn't your best friend.

Commuting more than 10 miles to work was enough to raise blood pressure.

The study looked at 4,297 people who lived and worked in in 11 counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth or Austin metropolitan areas. Commute distances were calculated using ArcGIS9 software and compared to various measures of the drivers' health. These included overall cardio-respiratory fitness (CRF), waist size, blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and blood chemical measurements such as cholesterol level. People also reported how much physical activity they had engaged in over the previous three months.

People who drove longer distances had poorer CRF, greater waist size and BMI, higher blood pressure and engaged in physical activity less frequently than those who drove shorter distances.

Long commutes seem to affect each of these factors separately. That is, even the people who did engage in high amounts of physical activity but had long commutes tended to have larger than average waistlines and higher blood pressure. And vice versa.

Commuting more than 10 miles to work was enough to raise blood pressure. Commuting more than 15 miles raised the likelihood of obesity and made it less likely that commuters would meet recommended physical activity guidelines.

The researchers suspect that multiple factors are involved. They note that the Dallas-Ft. Worth region is one of the five most congested in the country. It doesn't take a scientist to tell that it's a pretty stressful place to be driving in every day. And people who spend long times in their cars may have a lower everyday energy expenditure than those who don't. Do enough driving and you begin to think that your feet were made for pushing the gas pedal instead of for walking. And of course, the extra sitting doesn't help.

Is sitting behind the wheel as unhealthy as sitting in front of the TV is? It will take future studies to answer that question.

An article on the study appears in the June 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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