Longer commutes may steal health and fitness

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 - 11:52am

Anybody who has a long daily commute knows the frustration of sitting in traffic with nothing to do but wait. Now, a study suggests that long commutes can take away more than just precious time - they also negatively impact your fitness and health.

Previous research has 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," explained lead investigator Christine M. Hoehner of Washington University in St. Louis.

Long commutes are associated with "higher weight, lower fitness levels and higher blood pressure, all of which are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers," she said.

One discovery that Hoehner found a little surprising was how "being exposed to the daily hassles of traffic can lead to higher chronic stress and higher blood pressure."

Here's how the research was conducted: Scientists studied 4,297 residents from the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, Texas, metropolitan areas. They documented their commuting distances, body mass indices, and metabolic risk, including waist circumference, fasting glucose and lipid levels and blood pressure. Participants reported their physical activity for the previous three months.

What did scientists learn? Commuters who said they drove longer distances also reported they took part in less moderate or vigorous physical activity. They had lower cardiorespiratory fitness, greater body mass index, waist circumference, and higher blood pressure.

For a little historical perspective - as obesity rates have increased - so have the number of American commuters and the length of commute times.

Between 1960 and 2000, workers commuting in private vehicles jumped from 41.4 million to 112.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. And as suburbs have sprawled across the nation since the 1950s, commuter miles have increased too, along with the time drivers spend sitting behind the wheel. according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For many commuters, moving closer to work isn't an option but Hoehner said there are solutions that can lead to more exercise.

Commuters should find ways to work physical activity into their work days said Hoehner, by doing things like walking during work breaks. Employers could also help, she said, by encouraging fitness break and by offering schedule flexibility to commuters, if possible.
 

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