6 Ways Your Commute Affects Your Mental and Physical Health

Also: how to preserve (and better) your quality of life.

You speed walk to the train (cursing human roadblocks under your breath), join the mass of straphangers passing through the turnstiles like herded cattle, and then hurl your body into a jam-packed train where you dodge the woman’s pony tail in front of you for 20 minutes. Sound familiar?

Every commuter has their horror stories—train delays, traffic jams, roasting during hot summer days with no room to wipe the sweat from your brow—which at the very least are sending your blood pressure through the roof. But even seemingly uneventful trips are taking a toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.

Studies show that those with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being.

And our commutes are getting longer: according to a report by New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer, the average weekly commuting time for all full-time workers has been growing consistently, increasing by almost one-half hour since 1990. New York City topped the charts with the longest commute time per week (at 6 hours and 18 minutes), followed by San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Houston, Texas.

And all that time spent getting to and from work has some serious ramifications: from increased stress levels to a higher risk of obesity to neck and back problems. Luckily, making some small changes to your daily routine can help lessen the adverse effects. Here are some simple ways to hack your commute:

Commuting by car raises obesity risk.

Solution: Consider public transportation.

Yes, the train and bus come with their own set of grievances, but commuting by car can have some serious repercussions for your waistline. A 2004 study of adults in Atlanta, Georgia, found that each additional hour of time spent in a car each day was associated with a six percent increase in the chances of obesity. And going to the gym isn’t enough to offset it: while sufficient leisure time activity helps, car commuters who exercised regularly still put on more pounds than active commuters.

A study published in the journal British Medical Journal found that people who walk, bike, and even take public transportation to work have a lower body mass index (BMI) and body-fat percentage than those who drive. (Those who commuted by car weighed in five to seven pounds heavier). And another study published in the journal American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who walked or biked to work gained about two pounds less, on average, than daily car commuters.

If you’re able to walk or bike to work, do it. But if it’s unrealistic, using public transit (which inherently requires you to move more) may be an equally beneficial solution. If you can’t completely ditch your car, consider parking further away from the office, and make efforts to squeeze some more movement into your day by taking the stairs and walking over to co-worker’s desks instead of emailing.

Long commutes cause neck and back pain. 

Solution: Stand up.

Not only will you eliminate the stress of body-checking fellow straphangers for a seat, but standing burns additional calories. And your neck will thank you: one in three employees with a commute of more than 90 minutes say they have had a neck or back condition that has caused recurrent pain in the past 12 months, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. While back pain is one of the most common health complaints, only one in four people who commuted 10 minutes or less reported pain in the same poll.

And who doesn’t slump down in their seat, dozing off between rounds of Angry Birds? A study found that when the head is bent forward 15 degrees to look at your phone, about 27 pounds of weight is added to the cervical spine. Standing will help improve posture and take unnecessary pressure off your neck and back.

Crowded trains raise levels of cortisol. 

Solution: Adjust your commuting times.

You may want to reconsider the time you’re heading out the door in the morning. A study found that how crowded train cars were (and the more people invading your personal space) resulted in higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). If your job is flexible enough, take morning calls and answer emails from home and commute into the office after rush hour. Or leave the office early, beating the evening rush, and work for a few more hours from home. Telecommuting is also becoming a more widely accepted, and popular, option for once tradition in-office positions. Talk to your boss about signing on from home once or twice week to cut back on time spent commuting (hey, you can take those two hours spent hustling to the office and add them to your timesheet).

Long commutes lower mood and increase perceived stress. 

Solution: Employ stress reduction techniques.

A study published in Health Psychology conducted on study of suburban rail commuters taking the train from New Jersey to Manhattan, found that found that longer commutes were significantly associated with elevated cortisol, poorer proofreading performance and higher levels of perceived commuting stress—even after controlling for participants’ sociodemographic characteristics and the conditions of the train, including passenger density and whether commuters had their own seat.

“When we think about occupational health and stress, we focus understandably on the work environment, but that ignores the fact that for a lot of people, one of the most stressful parts of work is commuting,” said Gary W. Evans, PhD, who led the study.

And the effects last well beyond the time period spent commuting: Among employees who take more than 90 minutes getting from home to work, 40 percent experienced worry for much of the previous day—significantly higher than the 28 percent among those with negligible commutes of 10 minutes or less. Conversely, workers with extremely long commutes were less likely to have experienced enjoyment for much of the previous day or to say they felt well-rested that day.

If you can’t cut back on commuting time, introducing stress-reduction techniques is critical. Listening to music (which has been shown to boost mood) or reading a book to distract yourself from stressful elements (traffic, train delays, the couple making out practically on top of you…) are tools you can use to reduce the effect on your mood and stress levels.

Commuting negatively impacts your sleep hygiene and relationships.

Solution: Make room for sleep and socializing in your schedule.

Your commute may be negatively effecting two very important parts of your life: your relationships and your sleep schedule.

“There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every [10] minutes of commuting results in [10] percent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness,” said Robert Putnam, Harvard political scientist. And Research conducted by social geographer Erika Sandow that looked at the records of over two million people, found that married and unmarried co-habitating couples were 40 percent more likely to divorce if one partner was commuting for longer than 45 minutes each day.

Be aware of how a negative commuting experience may be fueling that kitchen sink fight when you arrive home, and are sure you’re setting aside time for friends, family, and significant others, especially if a long daily commute is taking time away from those relationships.

And while you’re carving time out of your schedule, move that bedtime up a little. A study conducted on LIRR riders found that commuting long distances negatively impacts one’s ability to capture adequate sleep. And a 2009 study based on data from the American Time Use survey found that each minute spent commuting translates into a 0.2205 minute sleep time reduction.

You experience your commute how you see it (which for most, isn’t positive).

Solution: Reframe it as time to decompress.

Research conducted by the Australian National University found that many people described how different relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness, while on the commute were an effective way of reducing stress. Those able to find pleasure from their time spent in a car, or on a bus or train, viewed it as a “valuable time out.” Using it as an opportunity to process work-related issues, while others used the trip to take time out from both work and home responsibilities.

“A distinctive advantage of public transport is the freedom that it permits for doing things that they see as ‘luxuries’. In this regard, the rise of mobile devices has increased opportunities for watching films and TV, as well as playing games and using apps,” said the report.

Begin to see your commute as time to de-stress between work and home: process what went on at work (so that you can leave it there), what you need to do when you get home, and zone out during an episode of your latest Netflix obsession or a few chapters of your current read. Dare we say it: You may even start looking forward to your commute.