Dealing with honking cars, train delays and frustrated fellow passengers can be its own kind of hellish Olympic sport. And a lot of us do it every day as we commute to work.
The percentage of Americans with a commute greater than 90 minutes a day nearly doubled between 2010 and 2019. And as people return to in-person work, more of us expect to be dealing with these kinds of commutes again. In a December survey of 1,250 American drivers, more than two-thirds said they expect to commute the same amount in 2022 as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The return of regular commutes has hidden costs. If you’ve ever felt like you already lived a whole day before your workday even starts, you’re not alone. Commuting is known to take a toll on both our bodies and our relationships.
As you hit the road, you need to keep a close eye on the harm you might be experiencing. Here are some of the biggest negative effects to watch out for as you head to work:
1. Your blood pressure spikes and your cardiovascular health takes a hit.
It doesn’t take long for our bodies to start feeling the effects of traveling to work. In one study, Texans who commuted distances of more than 20 miles had higher blood pressure and lower cardiorespiratory fitness in tests measuring oxygen uptake in the lungs and heart.
The stress of traffic and sitting sedentary for hours could be a reason.
“Those with longer commutes may be more likely to be exposed to heavy traffic resulting in higher stress levels and more time sitting,” the authors of the study wrote in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “Daily commuting represents a source of chronic stress that has been positively correlated with... high blood pressure, self-reported tension, fatigue and other negative mental or physical health effects.”
2. You get moodier and angrier when there are delays.
We don’t like feeling out of control, and nothing puts us in a bad mood quite like an unexpected delay. Dealing with traffic day in and day out is known to exacerbate stress and depressive symptoms in drivers.
The aggression that commuters feel on the road can even escalate to violence. One study published in the Journal of Public Economics found an association between traffic gridlock and increased domestic violence. The researchers found that on evenings when two Los Angeles major highways (I-5 and I-10) experienced extreme traffic delays, the incidence of domestic violence increased by about 9%.
“Domestic violence has been shown to be sensitive to emotional cues,” the economists behind the study, Louis-Philippe Beland and Daniel Brent, wrote for The Conversation. “When drivers were hit with worse-than-expected traffic, such as a collision, we saw more cases of domestic violence.”
3. You become more of a social recluse.
A commute can wear you out and make it more likely you will turn down invitations to socialize. One 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who regularly endured a commute longer than 20 minutes were significantly less likely to make other trips to visit friends and family, to exercise, and to tend to their personal obligations. The association between lengthy commutes and decreased socialization was even stronger for people who had commutes longer than 90 minutes.
In contrast, people who had more flexibility to choose where they work reported that this helped them become closer to their families during the pandemic, according to a survey of 1,000 American employees who previously had long commutes but began working from home when COVID hit.
More than half (58%) reported that the biggest benefit of not commuting was being able to spend more time with family. The other top benefits were lying in bed longer (30%), being able to finish more chores before starting work (14%) and having more opportunities to exercise (8%).
4. You sleep less.
We carry the stress of our commutes into our home lives. One 2019 study of more than 25,000 workers in Korea found that a long commute time, in association with long working hours, increased the chances of sleep problems, even after accounting for factors like job satisfaction, income and the autonomy to determine a schedule.
The study concluded that if a commute lasted more than 60 minutes, overworked employees tended to sleep less on weekdays. And that sleeplessness adds up.
“Consequently, sleep deprivation affects their activities on the following day,” the study noted.
5. You grow more unsatisfied with your job.
Your long, horrible journey to work can contribute to a sense of discontent. One study determined that it can even make you feel as unhappy as getting a pay cut.
The Commuting and Wellbeing Study, conducted by researchers at the University of the West of England, Bristol, examined the effects of commuting on more than 26,000 employed people living in England between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015.
“An additional 10 minutes each way of commuting time is associated with the equivalent effect on job satisfaction as a 19% reduction in gross personal income,” the researchers found.
Women with long commutes reported being unhappier with their jobs than their male counterparts. The researchers suggested this may be because women are more likely to deal with household and caretaking responsibilities, “which place more time pressure on them.”
However, it’s important to note that the mode of transportation played a role too. People who had short bus rides didn’t see a significant change in job happiness, but people with longer bus rides were increasingly unhappy with their jobs. Drivers and walkers reported being the most satisfied overall with their jobs.
6. It can increase your odds of divorce.
When couples are apart for longer distances during the day, it can widen the relationship divides between them.
To figure this out, Swedish social geographer Erika Sandow mapped the effects of long-distance commuting on married couples in Sweden by looking at registry data from more than 2 million people between 1995 and 2005.
In her work, which was published in the journal Urban Studies, she found that people who commuted long distances ran a 40% higher risk of divorcing than couples who didn’t commute.
“To be able to commute to work can be a positive thing because it means you don’t have to uproot your family with every career move, but it can also be a strain on your relationship,” Sandow told The Local Sweden.
The first years in which a partner commuted long distances were the most trying on a marriage. If couples had been dealing with a lengthy commute for more than five years, they were only 1% more likely to divorce than non-commuter couples.
7. Your lungs may be more exposed to air pollution, depending on how you commute.
The time you spend in cars on roadways can be a major source of air pollution exposure, because of the high air exchange rates of moving cars. One study published in the journal Atmospheric Environment estimated that 33-45% of total exposure to ultrafine particles for Los Angeles residents occurs due to time spent traveling in vehicles. Exposure to ultrafine particles can inflame your lungs and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Of course, your mode of transportation matters. Researchers behind one study recruited Sacramento, California, residents to wear air pollution monitors as they commuted. They found that people using electricity-powered light rail trains had the least exposure to air pollution, while commuters on diesel-powered trains experienced the greatest.