Commuting is a daily chore that you probably don’t give much thought — but maybe you should starting thinking about it. The average commute for an American worker is 25 minutes each way, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s roughly eight and a half days per year spent getting to and from work.
For some people, the time investment is much larger. About 8 percent of employed Americans who don’t work at home have daily commutes of an hour or more each way.
All that time spent commuting is time that’s not being spent on cooking a healthy dinner, hanging out with family and friends, going to yoga class, or getting a good night’s sleep. So it’s no surprise that commuting can have a big impact on health and well-being. Research has shown that longer commutes are associated with an increased risk for:
- High blood pressure
- Stress and anxiety
- Low life satisfaction
Fortunately, you may be able to ward off these problems by changing your commuting routine. Use these seven tips to help you get to work and back home again without sacrificing your health and happiness:
1. Get enough sleep the night before. Research has shown that people tend to make up for commuting time by cutting back on healthy activities, especially sleep. But chronic sleep deprivation may not only harm your health and hamper your work performance. It also increases your risk of getting into an accident while driving. Like alcohol, drowsiness slows your reaction time, decreases your awareness of surroundings, and impairs your judgment behind the wheel. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Make that a must, and cut back on unessential activities, such as watching TV.
2. Set the alarm 10 minutes earlier. Feeling as if you’re under time pressure can be a big source of stress for commuters. Allow a little more time than you expect to need for getting to work so you don’t feel rushed. If you get stuck in traffic, remind yourself that stressing out only makes your commute worse, not faster. Take some deep breaths — it might sound like a cliché, but it actually helps calm your mind and relax your body.
3. Eat breakfast before leaving home. Fast-food restaurant signs beckon more brightly when you’re hungry. If your commute takes you along a busy highway or major street, you’re likely to run into quite a few, so be ready. Eat a healthy, balanced breakfast at home and you’ll be less susceptible to the unhealthy temptation. As a bonus, one study found that nurses who ate breakfast were less prone to mental lapses, accidents and stress at work.
4. Walk or bike some of the way. Research shows that the longer your commute is, the less likely you are to get enough exercise throughout the day. But there’s a way around this problem: commuting by foot or pedal power. If you live close enough to where you work, you may be able to walk or bike the whole way. If not, perhaps you can walk or bike to a nearby bus, train or subway stop. Then finish your commute on public transportation.
In a recent study, British workers who walked or biked to work had lower levels of body fat than those who commuted by private vehicle. So did workers who commuted by public transportation, presumably because they walked to and from their rides.
5. Relax and refresh en route. Another advantage of taking public transportation is that you’re free to focus on something other than the road. Daydream about your weekend plans or an upcoming vacation. Watch funny videos or catch up with social media on your tablet or phone. Read a book or magazine for pleasure — no work reports allowed. You could arrive at your destination feeling more relaxed than when you started.
If you wind up driving yourself, stay relaxed by listening to music or an audio book. Research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that these activities aren’t overly distracting for drivers. In contrast, talking with a passenger or on the phone (even if it’s hands-free) is moderately distracting, and texting or checking email (even if you use speech-to-text technology) is even more dangerous.
6. Make your vehicle a smoke-free zone. Many smokers get into the habit of lighting up in their cars as a way of handling the stress of a traffic jam or the tedium of a long drive. To break this habit, ban all smoking in your vehicle and remove the cigarettes and lighter. And try changing your usual routine by taking a different route to work, for example. If a craving to smoke strikes, remind yourself that it will pass in a few minutes. In the meantime, your car smells better and your driving is safer when you aren’t fumbling with a cigarette.
7. Consider more drastic solutions. Of course, the best way to manage a long commute is to shorten it. As a long-range goal, ask yourself if you might eventually be able to move closer to work, find a job closer to home, or work from home some or all the time.
Realistically, you may be stuck with your long commute for a while, but that’s okay. By using your time wisely, you can reduce your stress, improve your health, and maybe even squeeze in some exercise and relaxation.