How To Tell If Your Commute Is Killing You

Sitting in your car is bad enough. Not getting anything done to help your day makes it unbearable–and fattening.

How To Tell If Your Commute Is Killing You
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Foster]

The U.S. Census has a term for the 10.8 million Americans with a 90-minute or longer trek to work: megacommuters. Rebecca Miller of New Brighton, Pennsylvania, is one of them.


As Forbes reports, the 27-year-old leaves her place at 5:30 a.m. every weekday to drive to the nearest Park-and-Ride, then grabs the 6 a.m. bus to Pittsburgh, then hops on a train headed downtown, then gets on another bus to get to her job at the University of Pittsburgh by 7:45 a.m. Then she does the reverse when work closes–giving her, effectively, 14-hour days.

Miller is an extreme case: the average American’s commute is about 25 minutes, though it’s much higher in big cities. If we zoom out, billions of people are commuting around the world every day, to the point that 4% to 10% of our workday waking time is spent commuting.

What is all that transit doing to us? Research shows that if you don’t schlep well, it will wear you down, burn you out, and over the long run, could even kill you.

Why? A lot of it has to do with the way you commute–and how much time the trek to work takes you.

As Jane E. Brody writes for the New York Times, most people get to work in ways that aren’t the greenest or the healthiest. According to the Census Bureau, 75% of commuters drive to work all by their lonesome, 5% take public transit, 2.9% walk, and a scant 0.6% ride their bikes. So instead of exercising, socializing, cooking, or getting a life-affirming extra hour of sleep, folks are stuck behind the wheels of their cars.


To see how your commute compares to everyone else in the U.S., consult WNYC’s amazing interactive map:

How does that all automobiling add up?

As the authors of a Swedish study, much of the making of day-to-day happiness depends on making the mundane parts of life more positive. If you’re satisfied with your work, your family, and your leisure time, so the science says, you’ll be satisfied with your life overall. Yet commuting remains a largely unexamined part of life–perhaps because it is literally the time in between home, the place of family (or at least roommates), and office, the place of work.

And though they’re unexamined, the effects of commutes can be tremendous. If you can cut an hour out of your commute, that makes a relative difference of $40,000 to your happiness levels.

Commutes can affect us positively: commutes provide us privacy, free of family, friends, or colleagues; they provide protected time, absent of email, Facebook, and Twitter; and they, in a way, show some sort of freedom, since if we’re driving, we feel autonomous on our way to work–so long as traffic isn’t getting completely in our way.


But commutes can stifle our days, too: they make us stressed out, to the point that long, traffic-clogged automobile commutes bring “residual stress” into the workplace.

The longer your commute, the more your body will suffer, since the further apart your work, play, and home are, the less time you’ll have for exercise. And if you drive to work instead of taking the train, cycling, or walking, you miss the opportunity to fit activity in your day. In other words, if sitting is the new smoking, then a car commute adds a few cancer sticks to our sedentary habits. A study of 4,297 Texans gives a telling data point: the longer your commute, the authors found, the more your physical activity shrinks–and the more your waistline and body-mass index expands.

But it’s not just your physical health that falls off. Your mental health takes a hit, as well. Another Swedish study found that long commutes led to exhaustion, sleeplessness, and missed days from work–all of which can lead to burnout.

Committing to a better commute

Humans are really amazing at adaptation, even to the weird situations we collectively put ourselves in. If we want to be less aggravated by the time we get to work (and thus more productive), then we can take a few steps to making the commute more productive, healthier, and generally more awesome. Like by:

Shifting the travel time: If your team approves of a morning spent working remotely, get your first tasks done at home or in the coffee shop. This allows rush hour to rush by and into uninterrupted, might-as-well-be-in-a-cave-type focus.


Catch up on your news: When we last wrote about perfecting the commute, we received a range of happy-commute-cultivating comments. Ezi Boteach, who’s been commuting in the Bay Area for 10 years, recommended these apps to make the journey more edifying:

  • Web2go: you can get any website read out loud to you (Android)
  • StreamShell : reads email, weather, stocks and RSS feeds (Android)
  • erem: reads news and social channels (Android/iPhone)

Immerse yourself in learning If subway commuters love the train for the way it enables book-burrowing, then with a little preparation you can similarly amass knowledge. Commenter Jason Worley goes as far as shaping a curriculum: I theme each week or two weeks with a certain idea or topic I want to think about. From Disciplined Dreaming to The Superiority of Man, I drown myself in all sorts of thoughts.

Or just move to New York: Those walk-happy, bike-crazy city dwellers weigh six to seven pounds less than suburbanites.

Hat tip: the New York Times.

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.