Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Aug

The High Cost of Commuting

CommutingBetween gas, car maintenance, bus fare, and train tickets, commuting can get expensive. Driving a mile in the US costs around $0.55, according to the IRS, and some estimates (PDF) even peg this country’s working poor as spending close to 10% of their income on commuting. Financial experts suggest that a one way commute of 20 miles (which is roughly average) will cost you almost $50,000 every ten years. If you’re one of the 600,000 “mega-commuters” who travel at least 90 minutes each direction in the US, your costs skyrocket.

But commuting isn’t just financially costly. It also eats time we could otherwise spend with friends, family, and our children – or getting much-needed sleep. It cuts into leisure time that would be better spent reading, writing, creating, or doing absolutely nothing at all but relaxing and being. It adds constant, chronic stress to our lives. It thrusts us into a daily fight or flight situation with huge metal monsters whizzing by and cutting in front of us. It turns other commuters into our mortal enemies, if only for a minute or two. It makes it harder to prepare and enjoy a healthy home-cooked meal. And it makes us more unhealthy.

In other words, commuting costs us time and money, but it can also cost us life, love, health, sleep, and freedom. Expensive habit, eh?

Let’s take a closer look at the high costs of commuting to see if it’s worth all the trouble.

Commuting makes you unhealthy.

Obviously, time spent in the car is time not spent doing health-promoting things like working out or cooking because you can’t do those while driving (well, maybe you could do kegels or something). The longer your commute, the more it takes away from food preparation (and subsequent consumption of said food), exercising, and other healthy acts. Each minute spent commuting is “associated with a 0.0257 minute exercise time reduction, a 0.0387 minute food preparation time reduction, and a 0.2205 minute sleep time reduction.”

And sure enough, several studies have found strong associations between commute time and poor health. In 2012 (PDF), researchers linked long commutes to less physical activity, lower cardiovascular fitness, larger waists, higher BMIs, and more hypertension in Texas adults. Overall, a long commute predicted poorer metabolic health. Another study found that vehicle miles traveled was the strongest predictor of obesity among Californians. Long commutes may also be more harmful to women than men, with long commuting women dying earlier than short commuting women.

Commuting makes you feel awful.

A recent study shows that with each additional minute of commuting time, we feel worse and worse. Our sense of well-being plummets and our anxiety increases. Oddly, this trend reverses once you hit a three hour commute; people who commute for three hours or more each day report greater life satisfaction. Higher pay (which often accompanies longer commutes) doesn’t seem to make up for the lost happiness, either. According to the study, telecommuters report the greatest satisfaction, lowest stress, and highest sense of well-being.

Commuting is stressful.

The longer the commute, the greater the stress. What’s worse: commuting is a reliable source of stress. You have to do it. It’s always there, lurking in the mind’s periphery. Sunday morning? You’re not focusing on the delicious coffee in front of you. You’re dreading the hour-long drive tomorrow. And the commute itself is fraught with stress, both chronic (the daily grind) and acute (the jerk changing lanes without signaling).

Commuting disrupts your sleep.

Until self-driving cars become available to consumers (a technology I for one eagerly await), commuting necessarily cuts into sleep time. You can’t drive and sleep at the same time, and the longer the commute, the earlier you have to wake up and go to bed if you want good, sufficient sleep. That’s just the morning, though. You also have to consider the commute back home. The more time that takes, the less free time you’ll have at night before you have to hit the hay to get enough sleep. It gets messy fast, particularly because people with long commutes still need to decompress and enjoy themselves at night. They’re not robots who just power down for the night. They’re likely to stay up later and suffer in the morning.

Commuting is lonely.

Even when we’re pushing through the throngs of humanity, we’re alone. No one wants to be there. No one’s cheery enough to chat, except maybe the guy with a quad espresso running through his veins. Most Americans drive to work in single occupancy cars. Millions of us file along the road, isolated and oblivious to the people around us (until they cut us off or drive too close and we yell obscenities). There’s no more robust a predictor of social isolation than a long commute, according to Robert Putnam, a social scientist and expert on the disintegration of American civic life. And social isolation is disastrous for our health and our happiness.

Commuting is the last thing many people want to do.

I mean that literally: a survey (PDF) of women found that commuting, especially in the morning, was the most unpleasant thing they had to do on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, the women’s favorite acts – sex and socializing after work – are both directly inhibited by a long commute. What makes this even worse is that we have to do this thing we hate more than anything – twice a day, every single day. It’s like a chronic illness that we’ve just learned to accept.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You can make changes, tweaks to your schedule, your routine, even your career that either mitigate the deleterious effects of the commute or eliminate them altogether.

Telecommute.

People often assume that telecommuting means slacking off or getting nothing done, but that hasn’t been my experience. Several of my employees telecommute, including my general manager who’s currently living in Australia, and it works out great. I’m a big supporter of telecommuting. Research backs me up, with telecommuters experiencing less work-family conflict, a greater sense of autonomy, less stress, and more job satisfaction. The main potential downside is a lack of personal contact with co-workers, which can modestly harm work relationships (but doesn’t have to).

Try active commuting.

If you really have to commute – and let’s face it, most of us do – try incorporating some active movement like biking or walking. Obviously, if you’re driving 60 miles on the interstate each way to work, biking probably isn’t feasible. But if you’re sitting in traffic for 20 or 30 minutes just to go 15 miles, or taking 15 minutes to drive 2 miles, you could easily do that on a bike or on your feet. Research shows that people who walk or bike to work experience less stress as a result of their commute and rate their mode of transportation as more enjoyable, exciting, and relaxing. They’re still commuting and it’s still taking up free time, but at least they’re getting some exercise out of it, avoiding additional stress, and perhaps even reducing their risk of early mortality.

Change your perception – and reception – of commuting.

When it comes to stress, perception is almost everything. Instead of flipping off the guy who cut you off, ignore it and smile. Don’t use the horn vindictively. Use it prophylactically to prevent accidents or warn other drivers. I mean, who really cares that a guy didn’t let you in or forgot to use a blinker or honked at you? Don’t give in to the anger welling up because someone did something in a car near you. It does nothing but make your commute more stressful. You may have to fake it until you make it, but you’ll be reciting zen koans and perceiving the cosmic oneness of all mankind on the commute in no time.

Make your commute enjoyable.

If you’re sitting in traffic, you should try to enjoy yourself. Don’t listen to AM talk radio hosts whose alignments run opposite yours. Don’t wallow in “anger porn.” Heck, I’d avoid politics altogether. Instead, listen to good music. Throw on audiobooks. Subscribe to a podcast or two. Make the most of your situation.

Change jobs.

I know, I know. It’s sacrilege to even suggest this, but switching to a lower-paying job with an easy or nonexistent commute might be worth it. You’ll have more time with your family and friends. You’ll have more time with yourself. You’ll get more sleep. You can finally go take that krav maga or yoga class you’ve been considering. You’ll save on gas and wear-and-tear car repairs. You might actually get a chance to cook a real Primal meal every night rather than pick up something resembling food on the way home. And a new job doesn’t even have to mean lower pay. You might find something closer and better-paying and more interesting if you actually rouse yourself from homeostasis and go look. Pursuing your dream can work.

Since nearly everyone commutes, and most of you are probably reading this at work or en route to work, I hope you’ll really consider the thrust of today’s post. It’s not an easy thing to confront the possibility that we’re actively curtailing our health and happiness on a daily basis, nor is it simple to change gears and make a huge shift, but it might be a good move. Let me know what you guys think in the comment section. Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I used to work in Brussels, the #1 city with the worst traffic in the world. So I took public transport, which took me an hour (and a lot of frustration whenever a train was late or bus didn’t show up), or occasionally biked there when the weather wasn’t too bad (so not often), 1 hour and 30 minutes.

    I got a new job and now I drive somewhere else, 30 minutes to get there, no traffic jams ever. Just relaxed driving while listening to music, not too bad. I’m never going to work in Brussels again.

    barry wrote on August 26th, 2014
  2. All said is true, but we can’t always get what we want (I for one, would like to retiree right now and move to southern California for instance (- ; We can however, strive to narrow down whatever has a negative impact on our quality of life, and upon, what contributes to our quality of live. Agreed???

    Time Traveler wrote on August 27th, 2014
  3. I had worked from home from time to time, but it just never feel right. Not that I find myself lazy, but it was rather hard to get motivated and get into the zone. I know it is very popular for devops to telecommute, but it just doesn’t work for me.

    DevOps wrote on August 27th, 2014
  4. First, it sounds like there are a LOT of us with ridiculous commutes! Secondly, I have been working 100 miles from home for 2 years now and, though I am in the best health of my life, have been more depressed than ever. I firmly believe it is due to the weight of the commute. My life has been reduced to working, working out, and eating. And that’s it. The working out and eating are great, but don’t balance the amount of work, travel and LACK of anything fun, like a social life. I have applied to tons of jobs but the market is terrible. I can’t sell my house for the same reason. I am stuck and it is (literally) killing me. This article rings true! Anyone need an IT Tech… on the cheap?! ;)

    Vince G wrote on August 27th, 2014
  5. I live in the Charlotte, NC and even without a long commute sometimes traffic gets so bad you’d swear you did have a long commute! But for the past year and a half I was commuting about an hour to an hour and a half one way. That takes up a lot of personal time and it definitely was very stressful at times. I can definitely relate to every point you’ve covered in this article.

    Things that helped me were hitting the gym at lunch, leaving later or earlier to miss the major traffic hours.

    Getting audiobooks and making sure you have good radio was definitely key for me. I also made sure I changed it up every once in a while from the type of genre i was listening too to FM morning radio or audio books.

    I’ve since been fortunate enough to move closer to work and even work at home most days.

    Great article – thanks.

    Dave wrote on August 27th, 2014
  6. When I went from an hour-long commute by bus (Park-N-Ride), where I could read/sleep/listen to music/email/Facebook to & from work, to an hour-long commute where I have to DRIVE, I didn’t know how I’d make it. I HATE driving long distances, especially in Houston’s rush-hour traffic.

    Podcasts saved my sanity and now, I actually LOOK FORWARD to listening to the podcasts so much that sometimes, I’ll take the longer route (to avoid paying tolls) because it gives me more time to listen to the podcasts.

    NatPatBen wrote on August 27th, 2014
  7. I recently switched from a job that was close to me, but stressed me out majorly and made me exhausted and miserable, to a job significantly farther away that puts me in a positive, healthy environment.

    If your job makes you happy, then the negatives of commuting are going to seem and feel much more minor.

    Kit wrote on August 27th, 2014
  8. This post just ruined me for this blog. All these commenters that I have had a ton of respect for just lost their sheen. Everyone seems so intelligent, until they talk about commuting. It’s probably because the Grok model doesn’t fit here. He probably wasn’t that social or considerate of his neighbors. Which seems to be happening here in the comments today. There should be another model to describe the societal aspect.
    What made me glom on to this community was the interest in environmental sustainability. Even if it was simply for the sake of health, I mixed food health with habitat health whenever I liked.
    All this post speaks to is mental health, and that bums me out.
    Our water, our air, our soil… These things are important when you consider your commute. Buying a car solves zero problems because the problems it creates become infinite.
    Get a job closer to your home or move. Buy a bike or get a rail pass… or both.
    Live simply…

    patrick wrote on August 27th, 2014
  9. And why not move close to your work place? I did that once and my stress level lowered so much it’s incredible! It was that or resigning, I was really fed up. It’s another reason even though I love the country side, I would never live there. Even if I worked at home, I would hate to drive long distances just to go anywhere.

    Coco wrote on August 27th, 2014
  10. Most of my career had involved very short commutes. Many of them just a walk down the street whilst living in small, remote towns or rural stations with a residential compound.

    I managed to land a position in a large metro area a few years ago notorious for traffic and long commutes. I got my hands on a condo across the water from the city and within a 10 min walk to the ferry. My office is a 15 min walk from the dock on the other side after about a 40 min boat ride.

    ktnbs wrote on August 28th, 2014
  11. I have an eBike arriving in a week or two, which will allow me to cycle to work over hills which would previously have made it impossible.

    Take a look at eBikes, coming to a shop near you soon!

    Tim Bushell wrote on August 28th, 2014
  12. I sold my car over a year ago and I walk, bike, carpool or take the bus. It was THE best decision I have made to improve my health, wealth and happiness!

    Green Girl wrote on August 31st, 2014
  13. I sold my house and moved to an apartment 3 blocks from work — I walk 10 minutes there, 10 minutes back for lunch, 10 minutes for back to work, and 10 minutes home.

    There are not words for how much better EVERYTHING is when that ridiculous car torture is removed…..

    skymuse wrote on September 7th, 2014
  14. I commute to college with my boyfriend. It’s about an hour and 20 minutes each way. Luckily this is our last year and we will be looking for jobs/grad schools MUCH closer to where we live. (Or we will move somewhere that we can be close). It’s fun to spend so much time with him, at least most days ;) But when it’s my week to drive it definitely takes a toll on my energy. I like riding along and being able to just sleep or read.

    Bekah wrote on September 12th, 2014

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