Commuting from home to work, or even for shopping, can be very annoying and boring—especially when the trips are long. But, research outlined at the 2013 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles by social geographer Erika Sandow of Sweden’s Umeå University reported that long commutes can also be deadly, as a health risk (and presumably not because of increased probability of being in a train wreck, car crash, etc., as one’s commute becomes longer, if not also more frequent).

At least that’s one of the key conclusions of the study summarized in a number of news stories with sensationalized, overstated headlines, e.g.,  Long commutes are fatal: Journeys over 30 miles cause higher blood pressure, stress and heart disease” (April 12, 2003 Daily Mail), “Study: That Killer Commute is Eating You Up” and “Commuting to an Early Grave”.

Commonly cited in these reports is the study finding that Swedish women over 55, with limited education or low income, who commute more than 30 miles on each leg of their trips have higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy than others, including men.

This is how more than one website put it (with some apparent copying among them without acknowledgement):

“Sandow and her Umeå colleagues trolled through a wonderful longitudinal database from Statistics Sweden covering the period from 1985 to 2008 and looked at workers who were 55 in 1994, then compared those who made long commutes (2,744 of them, a majority of them men) with those who didn’t (56,955)….(T)here was a statistically meaningful link—but only for women, and only for women who either had a low income or low education. The correlation grew stronger as the commute lengthened.”

Right off the bat, there are a number of red flags that pop up here; so before begging to work at home if you have long commutes, consider these:

  • We all know that correlation is not causation. The connection between commuting distance and health risk obviously evidences correlation, not causation.

It is entirely possible that other factors that also correlate with commuting may be responsible for the adverse health and longevity correlates, e.g., having little latitude (control) in one’s life, such as having no choice but to commute long distances, and having heavy loads (demand) both at work and at home.

These loads are made heavier by having less time available at home to deal with them (“household obligations” being cited by Sandow as a possible factor in the higher risk rates for such women—without identifying or distinguishing such duties as load or latitude stressors).

Since low latitude-high load represents a well-documented combination of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, a woman whose education limits her to low-paying, distant jobs may be at greater risk of health issues related to such load-latitude stress. 

  • Commuting-time variables vs. commuting distance: The study cites commuting distance as the key factor. What about commuting time, commuting environment, commuting time-filling activity (e.g., reading or iPhone use), physical effort or even posture, e.g., sedentary—which is another widely identified cardiovascular risk factor?

Suppose a woman, especially one already stressed by a heavy job and housework load, has to commute only 5 miles, but that she has to walk it.

Clearly the stress imposed in covering a given distance depends not only on the distance, but also on the time, the effort and various other factors, such as crowding, ambient temperature, precipitation, ventilation, available distractions (such as a pricey iPhone low-paid workers are unlikely to be able to afford) and whether one is a dangling straphanger or sitting on a contoured, plush seat.

Who knows?—Perhaps traveling more than 30 miles without an iPhone is so much of a stressor that it shortens some people’s lives (thereby providing a better reason why anyone would say, “I simply couldn’t live (as long) without my iPhone!”)

Intuitively, the less educated, poorly paid woman who cannot afford a first-class reserved-seat ticket on an express commuter train, or any train at all, and is forced to stand on a stuffy or sweltering crowded bus, with no digital toy as a pleasant distraction, is going to be subjected to stresses that her comfortably seated, better-off counterpart will not.

Hence, the total distance may not be as critical as the total time, how the time is spent and under what circumstances of comfort and effort.

Such considerations make it unsurprising that less educated, poorly paid women would have higher rates of high blood pressure, stress and cardiovascular disease—even without factoring in the effects of likely poor nutritional and fitness awareness. 

They also invite a follow-up question about the combination of being a female high-school dropout plus having a long commuting distance to a dull job plus loving her treasured Harley that, in weaving in and out of traffic, covers the distance faster than average, if not faster than everybody else, as she smiles through the miles. What happens to the commuting distance-health risk correlation in this case?

  • Misleading reporting: As mentioned, on the reporting side, virtually all stories about Sandow’s study carry very misleading headlines that overstate the size of the risk population by failing to be specific, thereby suggesting that everyone who commutes more than 30 miles one-way is at risk.

Hence, when it is reported that “commuters also take more sick leave and gain more weight over their working lives”, we may be forgiven for wondering whether this refers to the average commuter, or, once again, to a very specific sub-population, e.g., long-distance, long-time, low-paid workers; or, caregivers or shoppers—and then, only as a correlation, not as cause and effect.

Even among those commuters who take more sick leave, is it not possible that some, if not many, of them take more sick leave because they are sick of, not from, commuting, and simply want a break?  

This explanation suggests not that these commuters are unhealthy, but, instead, that they are smart and proactive in preventing, minimizing and managing commuting stress.

Weighing Commuter Weight Gain

Similarly, it has been suggested that the weight gain may be fueled by the on-the-run consumption of junk such as fructose-laced drinks, greasy fries, otherwise empty-calorie snacks and other fast-foods.

This makes the circumstance of having a long commute a double whammy, since not only is the stuff eaten in the course of a commute more likely to be unhealthful junk, but also the longer the commute, the less likely it is there will be sufficient time in the morning to make a proper breakfast.

During my 2013 trip through the U.K. and Ireland, I was astonished by how difficult it was to find a nutritionally well-balanced, artery-friendly breakfast or brunch near train and bus stations or in business and tourist districts—the choice usually being among a nutritionally-limited baguette, a buttered bagel, high-fat bacon, high-fat sausages, haggis and eggs.

The implication of this for weight management (and, by association, general health) is that commuting per se may not be the problem; the real risk is likelier to be in the food choices, prolonged sitting and overeating through boredom on really long trips that become more likely because of the commute.

The challenge is not only to find an alternative to commuting; it is to structure it better, if there is no other option.

Subtle Benefits of Obvious Suggestions

For example, even when I am immobilized on a crowded bus, I will do isometric exercises while hanging from a strap or onto a bar or I’ll do dozens of heel lifts; on a train, I’ll get up and wander.

As for food, I generally try to make sure I’m clear of the station and its neighboring convenience stores before eating anything. If I don’t have a book, I’ll explore conversation; so, the stress of boredom is never an issue (even though I don’t have an iPhone).

These are, of course, obvious coping tactics. However, there is a much more subtle benefit in them: Being flexible, proactive and successful in finding better ways to commute not only strengthens personal latitude, but also awareness of it, if not also a sense of one’s load becoming emotionally lighter

(Note: This observation raises the questions of whether subjective load is independent of subjective latitude and whether either load or latitude can ever be “objectively” measured independently of each other).

Therefore, it stands to reason that, together, perceived increases in latitude and perceived reduced load may significantly contribute to reducing stress, and, as a consequence, perhaps also cardiovascular risk (the foregoing being an opinion I offer as a logical inference, not as medical advice).

Men Get a  Medical Commuter Pass?

As for all of us men who got a pass in this study—because there was no correlation between commuting distance and shorter life spans for men, don’t pop the champagne or beer can pull-tab just yet.  There may a less than reassuring reason why we get a break here.

We already have average life expectancies significantly shorter than women’s and correlations with things other than commuting that amply account for our shorter lives.

Like too much beer.

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