Commuting To Work Bad For Your Health

By Amir Khan on May 8, 2012 1:53 PM EDT

Commuting
Automobiles wait in a traffic jam on a New York City highway. Commuting to work everyday may be hazardous to your health, according to a new study. (Photo: Reuters)

Commuting to work every day is stressful, but it may be doing more damage than you think. People who commute daily are more likely to be obese and have high blood pressure -- and you don't have to travel far to feel the effects, according to a new study, published in the June issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Almost 30 million Americans commuted 30 minutes or longer to work every weekday in 2010, the last year with data available, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Commuters who traveled 15 miles per day or more tended to weigh more and have more fat around the belly, which is linked to heart disease, researchers said. People who drove to work also had a host of other health conditions.

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"Previous studies have pointed to daily exposure to traffic, particularly the unpredictability of traffic, as being a source of chronic stress," Christine Hoehner, lead author of the study and assistant professor of public health sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told ABC News. "Our study is the first to show that long commutes are associated with higher weight, lower fitness levels and higher blood pressure, all of which are strong predictors of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers."

Commuting long distances takes away from potential exercise time and increases the amount of time you spend sitting, researchers said.

"It could just be a function of having less discretionary time to be physically active," Hoehner said. "Or it could be related to people burning fewer calories because they're sitting longer."

Hoehner said the study doesn't prove that commuting longer causes the health problems, but there is a definite correlation.

"We don't know the exact mechanisms at play here," she told WebMD. "It could be something related to diet. It could be that they travel longer and they're more likely to pick up fast food. It could have to do with sleep. They have less discretionary time, so maybe they're getting less sleep. And sleep is associated with all these variables, like weight and blood pressure."

Driving to work is a fact of American life, but it's come at the expense of exercise, Hoehner told ABC News. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, who was not involved in the study, told WebMD commuters are taking risks if they don't balance out their commute with exercise.

"You are on your way to heart disease," she told WebMD. "You have an elevated blood pressure, an elevated BMI, an elevated waist circumference; you're on your way to diabetes and high cholesterol. This is a person that I say, 'Change your life now so you don't get sick later.'"

Hoehner said workplaces should institute policies that make it easier for employees to stay healthy.

"Work sites can play a role by allowing more flexible in and out times so people can drive to work outside rush hour, or they can allow physical activity breaks during the day," she told Fox News. "Or if it's possible for people who live closer to work to walk or bike, there's been health benefits associated with active commuting."

But unless people want to improve themselves, they won't make any changes, Hoehner said.

"You can't tell people to move," she told Fox News. "But the main message for people who live a long way from work or sit at work: Find ways to build physical activity into you day or break up your sitting times."

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