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How a long commute to work affects your health and wellbeing

How long is your daily commute to work? According to the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, workers living in capital cities spend an average of 66 minutes travelling to and from work each day – an increase of 22% since 2002. What’s more, the number of people commuting two or more hours a day is on the rise, from 12% in 2002 to 18% in 2017.

There’s no doubt commuting, particularly by car or on public transport, can fray your nerves, and an increasing body of evidence shows it can have a negative impact on your health.

‘The health implications of commuting are significant,’ says Dr Sonia Nuttman from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health. ‘Regularly battling peak hour traffic and travelling long distances to work leads to poorer mental health, stress and an increase in road rage incidents.’

But the good news is there’s a lot you can do to improve the health of your commute – and perhaps even cure road rage.

What your commute to work can do to mind and body

One of the most obvious – and potentially most serious – impacts of commuting to work is all that time sitting on your backside. Evidence suggests that time spent sitting is consistently associated with premature mortality, type 2 diabetes and risk factors for heart disease, regardless of how much time you spend being active.

‘If you’re spending up to two hours each day in a sedentary position while you commute to work, as well spending further time in sedentary positions at work – for example, if your job is desk bound – there is very little opportunity for active movement,’ Dr Nuttman says.

And, of course, there’s the stress, which research confirms increases with commute time, lack of predictability and control, and crowding during the journey.

Plus, devoting a lot of time to your commute to work means there’s less time for activities that are good for your health and wellbeing. ‘Long commutes to and from home result in spending less time with children, spending less time socialising with friends and relatives, doing less voluntary or charity work and participating less often in sporting groups and community organisations,’ Dr Nuttman says.

'Regularly battling peak hour traffic and travelling long distances to work leads to poorer mental health, stress and an increase in road rage incidents.'

Dr Sonia Nuttman,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Car travel: the worst offender

Unsurprisingly, car travel is the least healthy way to travel to work even though it’s by far the most common form of transport, with almost two in three Aussie workers commuting by private vehicle. One study found people who spent more time driving were more likely to report being overweight, have insufficient sleep and worse physical and mental health.

There’s a lot to love about living in Melbourne, but our sprawling city can make getting around challenging and exacerbate health problems associated with driving, says Dr Nuttman. ‘Melbourne ranks among the most geographically disbursed cities in the world, and the latest data suggests our peak hour is now three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon,’ she says.

Healthier ways to travel to work

Wherever possible, ditch the car and choose an active method of transport to commute to work. Think walking, cycling or public transport – and if you can, stand rather than sit. Experts agree that aiming for 10,000 steps each day is an effective goal for keeping active, and there’s evidence to suggest that people who catch the bus to work are likely to get more steps in their day than people who drive. Victorian research found public transport users walk for an average of 47 minutes each day, equating to about half of your daily step quota.

‘Most commuters using active transport such as cycling, walking and public transport report greater health benefits,’ Dr Nuttman says. ‘Regular physical activity increases life expectancy and reduces the risk of chronic illness or death, stress, depression and anxiety.’

If you can’t work from home and the only practical way to travel to work is by car, try to keep your commute as stress-free as possible: listen to a podcast or an audio book, make a drive-to-work playlist (don’t forgot to sing along!), go old-school and listen to the radio, pack healthy snacks and wear comfy shoes.

‘Practice mindfulness and take into account that everyone else is in the same situation as you,’ Dr Nuttman says.

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Dr Sonia Nuttman
Dr Sonia Nuttman

Associate Lecturer, Health, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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