Not that long ago a long commute to work was the norm. In fact Harvard Business Review report that average commute for an American is 16 miles each way and 220 million car commuters spend at least 1.5 hours a day in their cars. That’s not to mention the millions who use public transit systems. The morning commute eats into sleep time and the evening commute takes from work-life balance. It can leave us frustrated, drained, and lacking in time.
As well as this, being stuck in a traffic jam or on a mass transit system can have an impact on both physical and mental health. The day in day out commute can have negative implications for our wellbeing.
How does commuting affect our health?
The frustration of being in traffic jams or train delays can increase stress levels. For most the commute experience is not fun, which can accelerate feelings of frustration. It’s also so often ‘dead time’ and the daily commute can feel like a waste of time going back and forth, which impacts the amount an individual can get done, so they might end up with an increased workload. Chronic stress increases the likelihood of depression and anxiety and is correlated with poor cardiovascular health.
If there is a long commute in the car or on public transportation to even get to the office, employees need to wake up earlier. Or they have less time after the commute home to get chores and relaxation done, so go to bed later. Research shows that long commute times are related to sleeping problems. A report from the Royal Society for Public Health found that UK employees with a long commute sleep 35% less than fellow commuters who travel over a shorter distance, or home or hybrid workers.
Sitting still for hours on end both on the commute and in the office is correlated with poorer physical health as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. The report from Royal Society for Public Health states that those with a long commute have a 40% reduction in physical activity, associated with higher blood pressure, weight gain and lack of mobility. A study of more than 34,000 British employees across all UK industries conducted by VitalityHealth with the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer are 21% more likely to be obese. Research shows that the longer people spend commuting, the more likely they are to reach for junk food, with one study estimating travelling long distances results in an additional 800 calories a day.
Wang et al found that commuting duration and delay time increase the symptoms of depression. But mode of commuting plays a role – people commuting by public transport were 4.8% less likely to be screened positively for depression compared to those commuting by car – perhaps because they are able to do other things. For every ten minutes extra commuting, employees likelihood of depression increased by 0.5%.
Long commutes have an impact on productivity as well as health. The Vitality report found that those who commuted to work in under half an hour gained an additional seven days of productive time every single year. We know that being productive can in fact improve mental health and wellbeing, as it results in a sense of achievement and accomplishment.
So how can long-distance commuters make the journey to work a healthier and happier experience?
7 ways to make your commute healthier
1. Active travel
Active travel refers to moving your body to get somewhere. People may choose to walk, cycle or even run to work. One systematic review reported improvements in weight management, cardiovascular health and morbidity. You can try taking a longer commute to get your daily steps in and garner the physical benefits of exercise before you have even got to the office.
2. Mix it up
Taking the same route every day is boring and can result in a level of mental fatigue simply from the monotony. Just turning down a different street or choosing a different public transport line can help boost a sense of creativity and innovation that filters over into the workplace.
3. Talk to people
It’s a long-held joke that people on the London Underground or train commuters in the UK never speak to anyone. University of Chicago studies found that striking up a conversation with others during a commute made it a more positive experience. Not only does it make time go faster, but it boosts oxytocin and a sense of connection that improves our sense of wellbeing.
4. Switch off
Commuting isn’t all bad. It can be beneficial as a time to switch off from work and mark a clear barrier between the workplace and home life. For this reason some researchers have
said it’s actually a useful way to detach from the day and create a sense of liminal space, and there have even been suggestions that a fake commute for remote employees can help them segment the day.
5. Enjoy your evening
Have plans for after the workday so that your work life balance is more clearly demarcated. Try not to work in the evening or reply to emails, to allow you to switch off from work and fully rest and recuperate. Better work life balance is demonstrated to result in more positive psychological states and a reduction in depression and anxiety.
If you are using public transport the commute time is a great opportunity to practice mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness can lower the body’s production of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, leading to a calm and relaxed state, and is shown to correlate with improved concentration and cognitive functioning. Wysa has a number of mindfulness packs with exercises such as mindful breathing where you focus on your breath, inhale deeply, noting the sensation of air entering your nostrils or mouth, filling your lungs, and exhaling. This is a simple way to anchor yourself in the present. You may also wish to not switch off from your surroundings but notice them. Pay attention to the various sounds, sights, and sensations. If you’re on a train or bus, notice the rhythmic movement, the ambient sounds, or the temperature of the air. Listening: Instead of drowning out the sounds around you, try to listen to them without judgment. Notice the variety of sounds: the hum of the engine, distant conversations, or the rustling of papers.
7. Use Wysa
The commute can be a great time to check in with Wysa. Because Wysa is available via your phone and supported in various channels, it is discrete and convenient and so can be used anywhere and any time. Those who have higher engagement with Wysa have been shown to have better results in the short and long term.
Saira, 37, loves how easy it is. “It’s like having a friend on the other side of an instant message who is checking in with you. For me, it was easier to access an app like Wysa at the precise time I was feeling anxious, and not have to wait for days or weeks to speak to someone. I literally had someone (albeit an AI bot) in my pocket that provided me multiple ways of tackling my anxiety. It would calm me down there and then so that I could go on about my day without symptoms worsening.”
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