Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.
The impact of spending time in the car on your health is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.
You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.
This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.
It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!
Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.
The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.
Aside from the time requirement, our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel—imagine how long a 25-minute drive would take on a bike or on foot! Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.
But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.