Long Commute? Your Heart and Waistline May Suffer

May 8, 2012

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By Matt McMillen

TUESDAY, May 8, 2012 (Health.com) — Are you sick of your commute to work? Bad news: It might actually be making you sick.

According to a new study in three car-centric Texan cities, the longer your daily commute, the more likely you are to have high blood pressure, an oversized waistline, and other health problems that increase your risk for chronic diseases.

“Long commutes really get under the skin in terms of affecting people’s health,” says lead author Christine Hoehner, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public health sciences at Washington University, in St. Louis.

Hoehner and her team looked at some 4,300 people who live and work in the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas. The researchers estimated the distance of each participant’s daily commute, and they also collected data on health measures such as exercise habits, body mass index, waist size, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

People with longer commutes tended to be less physically active, even after the researchers took into account extenuating factors such as age, race, educational levels, and family size. Seventy-six percent of people who worked within five miles of their home averaged at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day (as federal health officials recommend), compared to just 70% of those whose commute exceeded 30 miles round-trip.

In addition, people in the 30-mile-and-up club were more likely to be obese and to have an unhealthy waist size (40 inches for men, 35 inches for women). Excess belly fat is a known risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and other serious health problems.

Blood pressure appeared to be even more sensitive to commuting distance. Even people whose commute was just 20 miles round-trip had an increased risk of elevated blood pressure, which the researchers defined as the so-called pre-hypertension stage and higher.

While it makes sense that sitting in the car takes up time that might be better spent at the gym, physical activity (or lack thereof) doesn’t appear to be the only factor at work. When the researchers crunched the data, they found that a lack of exercise was largely responsible for the increased risk of obesity and excess belly fat associated with long commutes. Not so with blood pressure, however.

Next page: Is traffic to blame?


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