How to boost the health of your commute

Swapping the car for the bike will have immediate health benefits. Photo: Shutterstock

Swapping the car for the bike will have immediate health benefits. Photo: Shutterstock

How did you get to work today?

If you’re anything like most Australians, you commuted by car to the office and spent at least 45 minutes on the road getting to and from work.

An estimated 66 per cent of workers drive to work each day, with one in 10 catching public transport – while 20 per cent of train commuters also require a car for their trip.

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What commuters – especially those travelling for up to two hours a day – have long known intuitively is now supported by science: commuting to work is bad for you.

Commuting and your wellbeing

Driving to work, and to a lesser extent filing onto public transport with the masses, is associated with increased stress and anxiety, insufficient sleep, low levels of happiness and life satisfaction, and obesity – mainly thanks to all that sitting in confined spaces.

A Swedish study even found commuting to be bad for relationships, revealing that couples are more likely to get divorced when one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes each way.

Unsurprisingly, longer commutes have a more significant effect on your health. Australian research published in 2014 discovered that driving for more than 120 minutes each day is particularly worrying.

But shorter commutes also have an impact. According to 2014 British research by the Office of National Statistics, each additional minute of travel time affects our wellbeing by up to a maximum of 179 minutes. 

Assuming you can’t convince the boss to let you work from home every day, what can you do to improve the health of your commute?

Swap driving for public transport

There’s growing evidence that people who remain sedentary during long commutes to work are more likely to gain weight, which increases the risk of diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease.

According to research by Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes, people who commute daily by car tend to gain more weight than those who commute using other forms or transport.

Swapping the car for the bike will have immediate health benefits. Photo: Shutterstock

Swapping the car for the bike will have immediate health benefits. Photo: Shutterstock

“If you live in an area where you need a car for commuting and you do that a few times a week for very long periods of time, we think this habitual sedentary behaviour has an impact on people’s weight status and weight gain,” lead researcher Takemi Sugiyama says.

The solution? Swap your car for the bus or train – and stand rather than sit.

“There are a few studies showing the health benefits of public transportation because it involves walking from your home to the public transport stop on one end and at the other end you have to walk to the office or wherever you work,” Mr Sugiyama says.

Hop on the bike

Mr Sugiyama’s research also found that people who exercised regularly during their leisure time and shunned car commuting tended to maintain their weight. Cycling to work is one of the most efficient ways to commute to work and enjoy a daily exercise fix.

And you needn’t be a lycra-clad cycling junkie to make it to the office and back even one or two days each week. It takes as little as two hours of exercise a week to improve your health and there’s nothing like a mood-boosting, stress-busting endorphin rush to start the day.

Be productive during your commute

When it comes to reversing commute-induced stress and anxiety, Associate Professor Peter McEvoy from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University says changing the meaning of your commute from one of wasting time to an opportunity to learn something can help to create a more positive experience.

“If our attention is captured by the frustration of time-wasting or traffic, that’s going to escalate and breed frustration,” he says.

“If we focus our attention on more constructive activities, modifying the meaning of that commute in some way, there’s a chance of managing it in a more helpful way.”

He recommends learning a new language, listening to an audio book, catching up on news podcasts or doing whatever else will give you a sense of pleasure or achievement.

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