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Why your long commute is bad for your health

Your morning commute sets the tone for the day ahead, as well as impacting on how your evening will be spent. It's often thought that commuting into a city brings higher pay, better job prospects and a good quality of life. But at what cost to our health?

Short-term stresses in our day-to-day lives can be beneficial. Adrenaline can help you to keep going through busy tasks, meet deadlines or make quick decisions. However, permanent and ongoing stress can lead to conditions like chronic anxiety, obesity, insomnia, autoimmune disease, high blood pressure and depression.

For those who have to endure long and crowded commutes to work every day, either on the road or by rail, the impact of long-term stress begins to take its toll due to lack of sleep, poor anger management and a higher BMI.

Some employees have called for emails sent during commuting to be counted as working hours as they are pressed for time elsewhere. Is this almost never-ending working day having an impact on our mental health as well?

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How does it affect our overall health?

"With more and more people commuting it seems the daily journey is becoming more chaotic," says Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer of The Stress Management Society.

One study found that those who commuted for over an hour were 33% more likely to suffer from depression and 21% more likely to be obese than those whose journeys to work took them half an hour or less.

"There are also further implications with financial worries being higher for longer commuters and the likelihood that they are also getting under the recommended amount of sleep," Shah adds.

According to a report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), the average commute is 56 minutes, with the majority of people using non-active modes of transport.

Commuters have named the main sources of stress as: delays, overcrowding, antisocial behaviour, uncomfortable temperature and lengthy journeys.

Adverts for junk food and fast food delivery services, plus unhealthy food outlets at stations, are also likely to have a negative impact on commuters' lifestyle habits. The Mayor of London feels the evidence is so strong that he has supported a ban on junk food advertising on the entire Transport for London network, which came into effect in February 2019.

"Eating less healthily - mainly caused by bored snacking during a journey - raised blood pressure (due to a chronic stress response) and leading a more sedentary lifestyle", are all detrimental effects of commuting says Brendan Street, head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health.

The RSPH report illustrates the constraints of leading a healthy lifestyle alongside a lengthy commute, calling it the commuter 'time crunch'. This results in:

  • 54% increase in stress levels.

  • 30% average increase in snacking and fast food consumption.

  • 44% reduced time with friends and family.

  • 40% reduction in physical activity.

  • 35% reduced time spent sleeping.

However, there are a few ways you can make your journey more bearable, even if changing your commute isn't an option.

Your travel survival guide

Plan for delays

One of the best ways to reduce stress and anger levels is to always be prepared. Make sure you're updated on travel delays and engineering works that could disrupt your journey.

"A number of websites and apps make it possible for you to see information about your journey in real time. Both National Rail and Transport For London carry live information about disruptions," advises Shah.

Take a detour

If possible, add an active part to your journey by walking or cycling. Studies show this is especially beneficial if it's through a natural environment like a park.

Active commuting can reduce cardiovascular risk by 11%.

"Even a 10-minute brisk walk can boost your mood and reduce chances of weight gain and high blood pressure," reveals Street.

"If you travel by train or bus, try leaving a few stops early and walking or cycling at least some of the way to work," he adds.

Distract yourself

"Find a portable activity which can be easily added to your commute. Filling this time with enjoyable activities - like listening to podcasts, audiobooks or reading - will make you feel less frustrated about losing personal time to travelling," suggests Street.

Shah reiterates this, asserting that: "Reading is one of the best ways to take your mind off whatever is worrying you." If you want to keep your brain active, try out a sudoku book or puzzle app to help pass the time.

Catching up on your favourite shows incrementally during a commute can make you less likely to binge-watch at home, which has negative implications for your health, freeing up your spare time for other activities.

Bring snacks

This may require more planning, but it will be worth it. Avoid the temptation to purchase convenient but unhealthy snacks from station vendors by taking your own healthier snacks from home.

Pre-prepared high-protein snacks will not only help you stick to a balanced diet, they will most likely keep you - and your wallet - fuller for longer.

Be mindful

Even though you may want to completely switch off during the journey, Street suggests being more present could actually improve your mood.

"Take time on your commute to notice what's around you, as well as your thoughts and feelings. Often people spend time commuting feeling irritated ... and then time feeling irritated about being irritated."

Be flexible

In the digital age, it's becoming less important to be at your desk 9-5. Flexible working policies are common in a lot of companies; however not all employees utilise them. Check if your employer has a flexi-time commitment, or opportunities to work from home.

According to Street: "Flexible working policies can help reduce stress, promote healthier lifestyle choices and increase employee productivity."

If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk with your boss about any possibilities that might make travelling easier for you. Your well-being is in their best interests - happy employees work harder!

"Season ticket loans are also a good way to relieve additional employee stress caused by rising public transport costs," Street adds.

Avoid road rage

For those who commute by car, it's best to avoid confrontations and not give in to road rage as it will only delay you further.

"Stay calm in the face of other stressed people around you. Remember that smiling is contagious - try it and see what happens!" suggests Shah.

Long periods of sitting can put a strain on the body, tightening muscles and causing poor posture. Shah recommends this simple neck relief exercise:

"At a red light, tilt your right ear down toward your right shoulder to stretch the left side of your neck, breathe, and hold for ten seconds. At the next light, repeat on the other side.

"Sitting in traffic is also a good time to stretch your back by holding the wheel at 10 and 2, and rounding your back in order to expand the space between your shoulder blades. Stretching in the car is particularly important to avoid back and neck strain," he explains.

Accept it

Finally, Shah states, you just have to accept what you can't change. If you're delayed, there's not much else you can do! Try to counter stress and rage with relaxing breathing techniques to counter a rise in blood pressure.

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Light at the end of the tunnel

Thankfully, commuting isn't all bad news. Street advises employees to: "Use this time as an opportunity to visualise the kind of day they want to experience, set intentions and reflect on achievements or improvements over the coming weeks.

"Use the journey home as a signpost to move from work mode to home mode - leaving the work behind until the next day," he suggests.

If you're unable to walk or cycle, try to set yourself a hard cut-off time from work correspondence on the train and start to unwind.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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