A study conducted in the Dallas-Forth Worth and Austin, Texas, metropolitan areas surveyed nearly 4,300 people to determine how commuting affected their health and fitness levels.
Researchers documented participants’ commuting distances, body mass indices, and metabolic risk by measuring factors such as waist circumference, fasting glucose and lipid levels and blood pressure. Participants were also questioned about their physical activity habits for the previous three months.
Results showed that commuters who reported driving longer distances also reported taking part in less moderate or vigorous physical activity. These participants also had lower cardiorespiratory fitness levels, and higher body mass indices, waist circumference, and blood pressure overall.
This evidence suggests that the longer the commute, the more likely the association with higher weight, lower fitness and higher blood pressure levels – all of which are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Lead investigator, Christine Hoehner of Washington University in St. Louis, says that previous research linked longer commutes with obesity, ‘but this new research is believed to be the first study to show that long commutes can take away from exercise time.’ Another finding the study revealed was that daily exposure to the stresses of traffic can lead to higher chronic stress levels and increased blood pressure.
The study was motivated in part by the statistic that as obesity rates in the U.S. have risen, so have the number of commuters and length of commute times and distances. For instance, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, between 1960 and 2000, people commuting in private vehicles rose from 41.4 million to 112.7 million. And a report from the U.S. Census bureau showed that the number of miles covered by commuters has increased as well, along with time spent behind the wheel.
Hoehner reported that while many commuters view moving closer to work as an impractical option, there are other options to fit exercise into our daily routines, including finding ways to be physically active at work by walking during breaks; or encouraging employers to get involved and offer fitness breaks and increased flexibility to commuters.
One company leading the way in this area is Google, which provides such services as in-office gyms, color-coded healthy lunch options in their cafeterias, and group fitness classes throughout the day. These small but important changes, says Google, help produce happier employees who are in good health and not only calling in sick less, but also producing higher quality work.