Science Says Your Daily Commute Affects Your Health Way More Than You Realize

How long does it take you to get to work in the morning and back home again in the evening? Anyone who considers themselves to be a true commuter — aka someone who travels some distance to and from work or school every day — knows that anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour (or more) of traveling can take its toll. Sometimes commuting to and from work can be even more exhausting than the work itself. But maybe your trek doesn’t have to be so tiring. How commuting affects your health might ultimately depend on your primary means of transportation, and a new study is backing bikes as the go-to for sustaining good health during a lengthy commute. Obviously this mode of transport won’t work for everyone — it really depends on how far you have to travel and the pathways you can take — but if it is doable, you might want to consider a cyclist approach.

In the study, which has been published in the scientific journal Environmental International, researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) analyzed data from a questionnaire that had been distributed across seven European cities: Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Örebro, Rome, Vienna, and Zurich. In total, 8,800 people completed the survey, while 3,500 of those same participants were asked to complete a second round of questions about their health and commuting habits. Specifically, in order to figure out how commuting affects people's health, the commuters were asked what their preferred mode(s) of transportation were, how often they used different types of transportation, and how they felt about their overall health, stress, and energy levels.

According to the study’s results, the researchers found that, given the option of commuting by car, motorcycle, public transportation, bicycle, electric bicycle, and walking, bicycles were “associated with better self-perceived general health, better mental health, greater vitality, lower self-perceived stress and fewer feelings of loneliness,” ScienceDaily reports. And, if you’re curious, the second preferred mode of transportation was, surprisingly, a commuter’s own two feet. Now how’s that for #TeamCardio?

These active forms of commuting, like bicycling and walking, do so much for your health across the board because, on top of the fact that you can mindfully walk or ride as you breathe in the fresh air and enjoy spending a bit of time in nature, your body is also constantly moving, which means your heart rate is bound to pick up and spark a decent rush of endorphins that can make you feel better mentally, as well as physically, overall. Ávila Palencia, ISGlobal researcher and the study’s lead author, said in a statement that the more you can trade driving your car for hopping on a bicycle, or walk that extra mile into the office instead of catching the subway, the healthier you'll be in the long run. And judging by a recent survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by ArchStone Recovery Center, I think it's safe to say Palencia and her teams' findings are pretty on-point.

Think of it this way: At least when you ride your bike or hit the ground walking, you’re always moving. When you drive in, take a bus, or even hop on a train, however, you’re likely to hit some traffic, especially during rush hour in the morning and late afternoon. And this isn’t just me being bitter over the countless hours I’ve spent sitting pretty on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway trying to get home from literally anywhere at any time of day, either. According to the ArchStone Recovery Center's findings, one out of 10 Americans in the organization's survey said that "getting stuck in traffic was the biggest contributor to their headaches," but that's not even the worst part. Apparently, on average, a person living in the U.S. will spend 42 hours each year sitting in traffic — and those numbers can easily fluctuate depending on where you live.

The thing is, driving into work or sitting on a train or subway doesn't just affect you physically with things like high blood pressure; commuting gets to you mentally, too: A 2014 report from the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that people who, on average, commute more than a half-hour each way to work, day in and day out, experience “lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than noncommuters.” That's a whole lot of emotional baggage to be weighing down on you every day.

But, again, not everyone has a short commute, nor is everyone able to ride a bike or walk to their destination. Having said that, how can you cope with a lengthy commute in a way that isn’t so harmful to your overall well-being? Well, for starters, if your main form of transportation is a car, try pooling with co-workers who live in your area for some company on the drive in, as the social aspect might make you feel a little less alone during the ride.

If the buddy system isn't something you can do, try listening to some feel-good music, a podcast, or even an audiobook. This strategy works well on train and subway rides, too, because you can drown out the busyness of the crowds around you and soak in something a little more entertaining and a lot less stressful.

You can also try to learn how to meditate on your commute, which could be exactly what you need to keep your cool in transit. Remember to take deep breaths in, deep breaths out, and know that, eventually, you'll arrive at your destination safe, sound, and (hopefully) a little less stressed.