Health Risks of a Long Commute
Nov 18, 2019 Cedars-Sinai Staff
The palm tree may be considered the iconic symbol of Los Angeles, but nothing captures the spirit of the city like a traffic jam on the freeway.
You already know that traffic can feel like it's sucking the life out of you, but did you know it can take a real toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health?
Dr. Christopher Fitzgerald, a Cedars-Sinai internal medicine physician, frequently sees patients for issues like high blood pressure, back pain, weight gain, and stress that can be caused or worsened by long commutes.
"If you have a long commute, it's taking the place of something in your life that's healthy and reducing time with your spouse or your children or friends."
"This is a common issue I talk about with a lot of patients," he says. "If you have a long commute, it's taking the place of something in your life that's healthy and reducing time with your spouse or your children or friends."
Here, Dr. Fitzgerald shares tips on how to cope with a difficult drive, and how to offset some of the health risks of a long commute.
First and foremost, remember that cars can be dangerous and your primary drive-time focus should be on your safety and the safety of fellow motorists.
Watch the road and keep your hands on the wheel—don't text or email and drive, no matter how bored you get during long stretches when it feels like you're not moving anyway.
"People under 40 are more likely to be injured in a car accident than suffer any other health problem," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
Combat the effects of sitting
Long periods of sitting have a proven negative effect on your heart and overall health, and longer commutes mean more sedentary time. Hold yourself accountable to taking at least 5,000 steps a day, if not 10,000—nearly everyone carries or wears a device that is capable of counting steps.
"We sit at work, we sit in the car, and then we go home and we're tired, so we sit at dinner and sit with our kids because it's late," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
If you sit at work, think of ways to get up and move throughout your workday. Ask your colleagues for walking meetings—if you don't need screens or presentations, can you talk and take notes on a stroll outside your building?
Make a plan to park your car on the lowest level of the parking garage and take the stairs up to your workspace. If you take public transit to work, get off a few stops before your place of work so you can walk the last stretch.
Boring commute? Switch up your route
Traffic apps can help find the quickest way to get from one place to another. But often, Dr. Fitzgerald says, technology steers you on paths that can have you cutting across several crowded lanes of traffic or making turn after turn.
"So many times, we want to take the fastest way to get where we're going, but the fastest can be the most stressful," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
However, if you have a regular route, the boredom of the same streets every single day can make you bored and a even little depressed.
"Maybe once a week, take a different route that's 15 minutes longer but goes through the mountains where you can see some nature or a new neighborhood," he says.
Sitting causes tightness in the hip flexor muscles, which can cause back pain and damage the spine. Dr. Fitzgerald says he sees many patients take a leave of absence from work for spinal conditions caused or exacerbated by sitting.
A quick stretch before and after a long drive can reverse some of that damage.
"It's so important to take 5 minutes to stretch to help undo some of that tightening, which can lead to significant pain," he says. "Even when you're in gridlock, obviously not while you're driving, if it's safe, stretch your back by moving your spine around."
Lastly, Dr. Fitzgerald asks patients for true introspection—to genuinely consider whether your job is worth it, or whether you could find one closer to home.
"Ask yourself: 'Do I need to make this commute? Do I like my job? Is it worth it for me to take this health risk?'" he says. "Sometimes we forget to ask this question."
Tips for a Healthier Commute
- Change the angle or position of your car seat often so your spine isn't in one position day after day.
- If you have flexibility in your schedule, check traffic patterns to determine the best time to leave. Consider leaving earlier than you need to eliminate the stress of being late for work and potentially losing wages for clocking in late.
- If the isolation of your commute bothers you, check whether your employer offers a carpool or rideshare service.