Possible Health Consequences Resulting From Long Commutes

Connie K. Ho for RedOrbit.com

A new report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine states that, as people move farther away from urban centers and commute longer distances via car, it can have greater health risks. In general, sedentary activity is known to have impacts on cardiovascular and metabolic health. As such, the new study finds that commuting longer distances can increase weight, decrease cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), among other health issues.

In the experiment, researchers observed 4,297 residents who lived and worked in the Dallas-Fort Worth or Austin-Texas metropolitan areas. The participants were from 11 counties aroud these cities. The team of scientists calculated the commuting distance with ArcGIS9 software and the shortest distances from home to work with a road network. They measured the subjects´ blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), CRF, fasting triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and metabolic risk variables like waist circumference. The participants were to self-report any physical activity they did over the three-month period of the experiment.

“This study yields new information about biological outcomes and commuting distance, an understudied contributor to sedentary behavior that is prevalent among employed adults,” commented lead investigator Christine M. Hoehner, PhD, MSPH, of Washington University in a prepared statement. “It provides important evidence about potential mediators in the relationship between time spent driving and cardiovascular mortality.”

The study found that people who had longer driving commutes to work suffered a number of things, including decreased CRF, greater BMI, larger waist circumference, higher blood pressure, and less likelihood of participating in physical activity. Specifically, people who had to commute more than 15 minutes were likely to be obese and tended to engage less in physical activity. Likewise, people who had to commute more than 10 miles showed higher blood pressure.

“I think the message for folks who live a long way from work and have a desk job is to find ways to build physical activity into their day,” commented Hoehner, in an ABC News article. “Driving to work has become a part of American life. But there’s no reason that taking walks during work breaks can’t become part of daily life, too.”

Hoehner believes that longer commutes may make people participate less in physical activity; the time that could have been spent engaging in physical activity is time spent sitting in the car.

“At the same time, both BMI and waist circumference were associated with commuting distance even after adjustment of physical activity and CRF, suggesting that a longer commuting distance may lead to a reduction in overall energy expenditure,” explained Hoehner in the statement.

Apart from commuting distance, other factors could have affected the subjects´ drive home.

“The Dallas-Fort Worth region is ranked among the top five most congested metropolitan areas, and those with longer commutes may be more likely to be exposed to heavy traffic resulting in higher stress levels and more time sitting,” remarked Hoehner in the statement.

The report also noted that driving a car is just one of the sedentary activities. The researchers didn´t take into account other factors that could affect health conditions, such as occupational sitting or watching television. Hoehner believes that further research needs to be done regarding the effect of multiple behaviors on people´s health.

“We’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives,” discussed Hoehner in the ABC News article. “We need to change our communities and make improvements to the infrastructure to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Other studies have found similar results, like a study done in 2011 by two Florida researchers who found that obesity was worse in states where car use was the highest.

“While it is not our intent to claim a direct causal link between transportation modes and obesity rates, it is hard to deny the existence of some geographic patterns,” explained researchers Ariel Godwin and Anne Price in a Telegraph article. “Perhaps lower rates are driven by a cumulative effect of a more affluent and educated population.”

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