When asked about the most common form of inactivity in America, most people would probably guess watching TV, searching the Internet, playing video games, or even working at your desk for hours at a time. But one study suggests that car travel, namely commuting to and from work, is the most common light activity reported in the United States.
The number of people commuting has exploded in the past 40 years, climbing from 41.4 million in 1960 to an incredible 112.8 million in 2000. And the miles traveled have increased in kind, with the average distance ranging from 8.9 miles to 17.6 miles in 1983 to 12.1 miles to 22.5 miles in 2001.
Given that there is a clear association between lack of physical activity and increased risk of disease, researchers questioned if these same risks applied to commute time. Not surprisingly, it does.
Effects of Commuting on Your Body
Researchers from Texas and Missouri set up a cross-sectional study of nearly 4,300 participants with work addresses in one of 12 Texas metropolitan counties. When determining commuting distance, researchers broke the mileage into five categories: 1-5 miles; 6-10 miles; 11-15 miles; 16-20 miles; and 20-plus miles.
They also monitored for several other factors, including:
- Alcohol consumption
- Smoking history
- Marital status
- Education level
- Body composition
- Waist circumference
- Adiposity (belly fat)
- Cardiorespiratory fitness (measured by an exercise treadmill test)
- Level of physical exercise
Researchers then tested a variety of biomarkers, namely blood pressure, triglycerides, blood glucose and HDL cholesterol levels. Finally, to determine if a participant had metabolic syndrome, researchers looked for three or more of the following factors:
- Central obesity (waist circumference of more than 102 centimeters for men and 88 centimeters for women)
- Elevated triglycerides (150 mg/dL or higher)
- Low HDL cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL)
- High blood pressure
- Elevated blood glucose levels (100 mg/dL or higher)
After examining the data, researchers found that commuting distance was negatively associated with exercise time and cardiorespiratory fitness. In other words, the longer the commute, the less time people spent exercising and the worse their cardiorespiratory fitness. They also found that longer commuting distances were associated with higher BMIs, greater waist circumference, and higher diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number).
When distances reached more than 15 miles, researchers noted higher rates of obesity and belly fat. Distances of more than 10 miles were associated with elevated blood pressure specifically. This was also seen in people whose commute was 20 miles or more.
Interestingly, there was no connection between commuting and cholesterol or glucose levels. However, due to increases in other biomarkers, researchers did find an association between longer commutes and increased likelihood of metabolic syndrome.
Researchers noted that other studies have pointed to the connection between time spent riding in a car and cardiovascular mortality. They also show that traffic and rush hour driving can increase stress and stress can increase blood pressure. Finally, they suggest that a long commute paired with long work hours make it difficult to carve out time to exercise.
As such, they suggest that all of these factors likely play a role in their findings and indicate that “multilevel strategies in the home, worksite, and community settings will be needed to mitigate the negative health consequences of long commutes.”
How to Offset Your Commute
It seems like this is yet another discussion point in the long debate surrounding traffic and commuting issues. While you likely don’t have much of a say over where you work in relation to where you live, there are a few things you can do to help you offset the lack of physical activity and high stress that accompany a lengthy commute.
First of all, if you have access to bike paths, you may want to look into biking to work. You don’t have to take a Lance Armstrong approach to this. If you are 10 miles or so from work and can avoid high-traffic areas, simply strap on a helmet and backpack and give yourself 30 minutes or so starting out.
If biking is not an option, you can also look at working off hours to avoid heavy traffic. While this won’t shorten the distance of course, it will shorten the amount of time you spend in the car. This can mean getting to work earlier (say around 7am) and leaving earlier (around 3pm or so). You could also do the opposite and head to work at 10 am and leave at 7pm.
In either instance, you can sneak in a workout with the schedule, either first thing in the morning before work or immediately upon your arrival home. This should help offset the time spent in the car and lower your risk for sedentary health conditions at the same time.
 Tudor-Locke C et al. Frequently reported activities by intensity for U.S. adults: the American Time Use Survey. Am J Prev Med. 2010;39:e13-e20.
 Pisarski AE. Commuting inAmerica III: the Third National Report on Commuting Patterns and Trends.WashingtonDC: Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, 2006. Report No.: NCHRP Report 550 and TCRP Report 110.
 Hu PS and Reuscher TR. Summary of travel trends: 2001 National Household Travel Survey.WashingtonDC:U.S. Department of Transportation,Federal Highway Administration, 2004.
 Hoehner CM et al. Commuting distance, cardiorespiratiory fitness, and metabolic risk. Am J Prev Med. 2012;42(6): 571-8.
 Warren TY et al. Sedentary behaviors increase risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42:879-85.