Long commutes make you unhappy, sick and fat

According to a new survey, long commutes are bad for you. Really bad:

One in three employees with a commute longer than 90 minutes say they have had recurring neck or back pain within in the past 12 months. Just about the same amount say they have been diagnosed with high cholesterol…

The study shows a strong correlation between obesity and the length of your commute…

Employees with long commutes experienced lower levels of enjoyment and higher levels of fatigue and worry than employees with short commutes.
(source)

These findings don’t surprise me at all. Here are the top 3 reasons why long commutes are bad for ya:

1: Commute time is butt time
A recent article in the NYTimes said this:

It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting — in your car, your office chair, on your sofa at home — you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In other words, irrespective of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you.

(source)

And unless you commute by bicycle or walking/running you will spend most of your commute time on your butt, either behind your steering wheel or on a bus or train seat. This is bad for you even of you’re otherwise in good shape and get lots of exercise!

2: Commutes are stressful
Is your commute anything like this scene from the movie Office Space:

When do you commute? At the same time as everyone else.

You can almost expect a lot of traffic, delays, traffic jams, road work, lack of parking spaces, inconsiderate drivers and a host of other stress factors. Plus a lot of people always seem to leave home five minutes late so they’re in a hurry which just adds to the stress.

3: The commute takes time that you could spend on things that make you happy
The 1-2 hours you spend going to and from work is time that you can’t spend with your friends, kids, spouse, family or on exercise, movies, cooking, reading or other things that make you happy.

So I can easily see, why long commutes are bad for

What to do

So enough complaining – what are some things you can do, to reduce the impact of a long commute? Here are 5 suggestions:

Commute outside of peak times
Not all jobs will let you do this, but if you can come in earlier or later then maybe your commute will be faster and less stressful.

Leave for work a little earlier
If you leave for work in plenty of time, your commute make take a little longer but it will feel shorter and will be less stressful. It may take you an hour and ten minutes rather than just an hour, but at least you can spend that time in a more relaxed state of mind rather than fretting about whether or not you will be late.

Of course this works against point #3 above…

Commute by public transportation
This is not only environmentally better (lower carbon footprint) but it also means that you can get some work done during your commute and possibly reduce your working day accordingly.

Telecommute
I’ve seen studies that show that employees who telecommute 1-2 days a week are happier than those who come into the office every day. Is that an option for you?

Pick a job closer to where you live (or vice versa)
But maybe the simplest and most effective thing is to work close to where you live. The next time you look for a new job, maybe you should give preference to jobs that offer fewer or shorter commutes.

I fully realize that modern urban planning in most countries and most cities conspires to work against this. One notable exception is Copenhagen, that has focused on public transportation and bicycle safety since late 60s. And it works. I personally live 3 miles from work and ride my bicycle in every morning and 35% of all Copenhageners commute by bike. We’re also the happiest people at work? Coincidence? Probably mostly, but there may still be some causation going on :o)

Your take

How long is your commute? Have you tried having a long commute? How did it affect you and what did you do about it? Please write a comment, I’d love to know your take.

20 thoughts on “Long commutes make you unhappy, sick and fat”

  1. My commute is 17 minutes on foot!

    My rent is really high, but it’s worth the price. I’ll never live far from my workplace again.

    I live in Botafogo – Rio de Janeiro.

  2. the commute to my previous job was at least 40 minutes long and very unpredictable on the way home. The organisation agreed that I could leave 15 mins early ( with a shorter lunchtime) to avoid a particular traffic hold up near my house. However, in a room of 9 people, it felt odd clearing off home before everyone else , and so I ended up having a shorter lunchtime and a long commute.

    I changed jobs and if I leave early enough, the journey is about 20 mins and feels like just down the road. 6 miles instead of 14 makes a lot of difference. If it were possible to go by public transport, I would do so but there is no direct route that matches my start and finish time.

  3. My commute is about 40 minutes by bus or about 45 minutes on my bike – each way. I enjoy almost every minute of my daily commute. I just put my commute into good use.

    On my bike I get a good work out. I have an office job, so it is vital to use my body as well. I usually ride my bike 2 days of the week. I’m so fortunate that I can take a bath when I get to work.

    When I take the bus I use my iPhone to update my self on the world around me. I get a ton on news, insights and knowledge directly delivered to my Google Reader (RSS feeds) and Twitter account.

    My advice is to get something positive out of your commute. For me it’s 1 1/2 hour of doing the stuff I properly wouldn’t get the time to do any other way.

  4. I have had long commutes and short commutes. But a commute isn’t the only factor to consider. There is also the question of liking your job.

  5. I totally agree, Alexander, commuting was invented by that annoying little man with a trident and horns in his forehead. Luckily, few cities are as bad as depicted in this video from Mumbai http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7ukbRk8rHI. I’m told they fit in 16 people per square meter (10 sq.ft.) on those commuter trains. Now THAT would give me serious health problems.

    On the other hand it seems more and more cities worldwide are trying to adopt the cycling culture portrayed in this excellent video Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes from Streetfilms: http://www.streetfilms.org/cycling-copenhagen-through-north-american-eyes/.

  6. My commute can be anywhere from 1:15 to 2 hours each way depending on DC traffic. Also I am a programmer so I spend most of my day staring a computer screen when I am at work.
    My mitigation of this is to:
    1) work 1-2 days a week from home
    2) try to go in as early as possible to avoid as much traffic as I can
    3) go running on a trail near work before beginning my commute home while waiting for evening traffic to die down.
    4) watch that I am getting enough sleep and eating right so as not to put myself in the hole any farther.
    Not an ideal situation but the job is the right job for the moment so it is worth it.

  7. Commutes take up much of my time. My average travel time a day is 2 to 3 hours to and from the office. My house if 20kms away from my office. I can’t just move my family near the business district because there aren’t too many nice communities there. Well, there are condos, but I want my son to grow up in a place where he can run around in our backyard. There may be parks there, but it’s not safe because anyone can go there, unlike in private villages. Anyway, because I don’t get to spend more time with my son and I don’t want to move near the office, I decided to work home-based. I also just started my small business of baking pastries and cakes. :) Allow me to share with you an article on 10 Ways to Advertise Your Business. This was quite helpful when I was just starting out. Now I don’t have to worry about the long commutes because I can earn money at home. :)

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  9. 2,5 hours each way, starting at 7.30, finishing at 15.30. that means getting up at 4.30 and I’m home at 6.30 most days…The things we do to avoid being unemployed in these hard times!

  10. My commute is 10 minutes on surface streets outside of traffic; I have flexibility on my start time so try and be in before the rest of my peers by a good 30 minutes or so. If I take public transportation it is about 20 minutes but I always carry a book. I have the option to telecommute every so often but prefer to be in the office.

  11. Hi Maggie,

    Thanks for the tip!
    However, I really don’t like my job. I have a decent position within the company and have been searching for something else for about 6 months now but since I’m still fairly young, it’s nearly impossible to find something decent. I’m multilingual ( French – Dutch and English ), I have an economics and project management background but I must be doing something wrong if I’m still commuting so much every day. I will read through the article you sent me and from there I will hopefully be able to secure myself a job which I will enjoy.

    Regards,
    Danny

  12. I want to start by saying that there are in fact ways to make a long commute more bearable, sometimes even relaxing.

    I have two commutes. One is to my office in the city, which takes about 30-40 minutes by walking+public transportation. That one is rarely stressful: I have books, my MP3 player, flashcards (when I’m studying something), the paper, etc. on me. There are plenty of books that I never would’ve finished if it hadn’t been for that extra hour-plus in the day to read.

    The second commute is to a client site that takes about 60-90 minutes by car (on occasion it’s even taken 2-3 hours). I used to hate that, but I’ve grown to enjoy that one, too. Here’s why:
    1. I still have things to do while driving. I listen to NPR (I’ve become a big fan of their programming by now) which always has excellent coverage. On the drive home I’ll sometimes call my sister or my girlfriend from the road (I have a hands-free device which lets me legally do so). I’ll sometimes listen to podcasts I have downloaded.
    2. Whenever I have a phone interview to do, I schedule it on the drive back. So, I’m technically working while I’m on the road–which means I don’t have to stay in the office as long.
    3. I -expect- the commute to take 75-90 minutes. This is big. I find that traffic is far less stressful when you know (a) where to expect it, and (b) how much it’ll delay you. If I get up there sooner, I feel great. If it takes me 90 minutes, then I don’t feel lousy.
    4. Because it’s a client site, any time past my normal commute (i.e., what takes longer than 40 minutes) counts as part of my work-day. Plus I’m reimbursed for mileage.
    5. If my drive back home takes me a long time, I’ll stop by the grocery store before heading back home. Personally, a trip to Whole Foods really cheers me up.

    You know, by now I actually -like- the drive there and back. I come in all relaxed and ready to get started with work (instead of needing to “zone out” for 15-30 minutes Office Space-style). If you find things you can enjoy doing while on that drive, and if you build your expectations right, then it’s possible for anyone with a long commute to use it as a time to relax instead of a time to get stressed out.

    That being said, those odd days when it takes me 2-3 hours on the road in one direction do get a tad bit irritating. KF

  13. I agree with Emil. Ever since I started riding my bike to work, my commute has become the best part of my day. I love it. I spend about one hour each way (it would take about 40 minutes by public transport) and the hardest thing is making myself stop when I get to the office….

  14. Great post. I used to have a 30 minute commute, which later turned into 45. I know that is not a lot compared to some, but in the winter it turned into hours. Finally I had enough, was not about to give up my house, so I made my own business and now work from home. Commute time is now work time.

  15. I used to work 74km from my house. The commute was horrible. I was grumpy 90% of the time and my stress levels where trough the roof. I had to get up at 04:40 in the morning and leave a 05:10 at the latest to avoid sitting in traffic for more than an hour. And even the drive back home was never less than an hour.

    I was lucky enough to find a job that is just 18km from my house now and I’m a much happier person just because I don’t have to do that awfull daily commute.

  16. That’s with developed countries, imagine the condition of commuting in underdeveloped countries like the one I’m living in.

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