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How Bad Is Commuting for Your Mental and Physical Health?

Sean Farnan’s loathing for his work commute was so intense, it attracted local media attention

Farnan, an IT manager from Oakland, California, used to take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to get to his job in San Francisco. Theoretically, the trip takes 25 minutes, but it often stretched much longer, thanks to crowded trains and other delays. At one point, Farnan became so fed up, he created a Facebook group called “The BART Idiot Hall of Fame” to complain. “BART is such a trainwreck, literally and figuratively, but you’re stuck on it and there’s nothing you can do,” he says. 

To his dismay, while Farnan was briefly able to work remotely at the beginning of pandemic lockdown, more recently, he had to go back into the office. He was so anxious, he traded the train for his car. “I was worried about COVID-19 and didn’t want to trust people to wear masks on crowded trains,” he says.  

For years, workers have ragged on the drudgery of the commute; the opening scenes of the 1999 comedy Office Space sum up its low points pretty well. Yet during COVID-19, many people missed the routine of commuting enough that they faked it at home to replace the ritual that eased them into the day. 

As the world reopens, new factors now come into the equation for commuters. Increased violence on public transit, coupled with rising gas prices and the ongoing threat of a new COVID-19 variant, are putting a damper on the return to work. 

We break down how your commute can affect your mental health, so you can figure out the right route to your own well-being. 

Highway to health

Factors like timing and method can make or break whether your commute is good for you or not. 

Research says that most commuters can typically tolerate up to 45 minutes in transit; beyond that, getting to work becomes unbearable. Other studies show that the ideal work commute is around 16 minutes. 

This isn’t the reality for most. Americans’ overall commute time has stretched about 10 percent since 2006. While the average one-way trip to work takes about 28 minutes today, nearly 1 in 10 Americans spends more than an hour getting to work each day. 

The timing of your commute also matters for your physical and mental health. If it’s a tolerable length, commuters tend to find more positives in their trip; for instance, they appreciate the transition it offers from home to work. 

People who have a lower tolerance for stress and unpredictability will have a harder time dealing with the unknowns of a commute, says Debra Kissen, a cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in treating anxiety. 

With COVID-19 and other factors, taking public transit can feel exceptionally unpredictable. One recent Japanese study found that people who took public transportation to work were more likely to have infection-related anxiety than others. The authors noted that the longer the commute, the higher the anxiety participants reported. While 5 percent of US workers take public transportation to work, most people drive — 76 percent solo and 9 percent by carpool. 

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans bike to work, likely in some part thanks to poor infrastructure and a fear of accidents with cars. A switch to more physically active commutes for those who are able would benefit many: Biking and walking commutes are associated with a lower risk for heart disease and cancer. Other studies have found that cycling improves cognitive function and well-being. 

Fake commutes

While commuting can have negative effects on mood and body, getting out of the house on workdays can really boost mental health for remote workers. In the early days of the pandemic, some people found work days without a commute so disorienting that a fad for “fake commutes” emerged. 

Proponents said the ritual helped shift their mindsets into work mode and combat a common downside of working from home: the lack of delineation between work and personal time. 

“Our brains are very sensitive to environment,” says Kissen. “The environment we’re in tells the brain, ‘Now I’m in a place to relax’ or ‘Now I’m in a place to work.’”

For this reason, even people who love working from home and see no need to signal the work day might consider the benefits of getting out of the house. 

“Work-from-home social isolation is one reason mental health challenges are at an all-time high,” Kissen says. “Just because something feels good and desirable doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Eating a cupcake is enjoyable, but it’s not good for cholesterol. I think working in pajamas and not leaving the house is a similar thing.”

In general, it helps to reframe commute time as an opportunity to gain something, says Kissen, whether it’s time to reflect, listen to a book or music or learn something new.

“No matter what your commute is like,” she says, “you can set yourself up for success.”

Ready to book a doctor’s appointment? Visit Zocdoc.

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.