How A 30 Minute+ Commute Affects Your Health

Photo: Matthew Lloyd
Hot in summer, freezing in winter, and always crowded; there’s little to love about commuting. Most of us have to do it, thanks in no small part to the strange way cities expanded during the Industrial Revolution, when few residential buildings were built in the city centre, and were instead clustered in a doughnut shape around the CBD [Central Business District].

In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that, for workers without a fixed office, commuting counts as paid work and should therefore be compensated. However, this won’t matter because other research says we’ll all die young, obese, and frazzled from commuting for longer than 30 minutes. (Experts, huh!) It seems the only sensible thing to do would be to quit the commute.

Some studies have found that commuting further than 31 miles each way may shave years off your life expectancy, and women are most at risk. Furthermore, if you take a bus or a train to work and the journey lasts longer than half an hour, the impact on your personal wellbeing can be severely detrimental.

This is bad news for most people living in Greater London, who have an average commute of 46 minutes. It’s another strike against the capital: The commuting average for the rest of the UK, according to the Department for Transport, is just 25 minutes. Although Scottish people should beware – since 2015, those living north of the border have seen a 22% increase in commuting time, up to 27 minutes.

Being told to reduce your commute is like being told to buy a penthouse flat with a swimming pool. It sounds unrealistic and (sigh) is probably just another inevitable consequence of being a millennial in 2017. But if there’s one positive change to make this year, it would be to try to cut down the time you spend commuting. Do yourself this favour, and you may find you enjoy work more (plus increase the time you get to spend at home in your PJs).

Aware of my privileged position as a young, unattached person with no kids, I’ve always paid more to live centrally. This has meant my commute has never taken more than 15 minutes. Usually I cycle, and zip around central London quite easily. The rent may be cripplingly high – but at least this way I avoid shelling out thousands for a rail season ticket (upwards of £5,000 in some parts of the country) or tube pass (a Zone 1 annual travel card currently costs £1,320). For this, I am eternally grateful. There are many without this luxury of choice.

For Elena, who lives near St Albans, where she chose to buy a house was completely based on her commute. “I was commuting 40 mins when living at my mum's and now it's 15-20 mins if I time it right, while my husband has gone from 1 hr to 40 mins, with both of us driving.”

Choosing a shorter commute should, according to a study conducted by Erika Sandow at the University of Umeå in Sweden, make us healthier and happier. Squeezing onto a cramped bus, or experiencing delay after delay on the train raises our blood pressure, which in turn can lead to anxiety and in some cases, eventually, a stroke. Sandow’s study found no increase in the rate of death among men, while European women – especially those working low-income jobs – commuting more than 30 miles a day could expect a shorter lifespan. There are no clear reasons for this. One thought is the ongoing gender pay gap; perhaps our male commuting counterparts are happy to make a longer journey for greater compensation. Either way, this sucks, and we should all pay heed to the demands of time on our body.

The idea of spending three hours a day without my daughter but not doing anything meaningful for myself or the world is abhorrent

Holly, from London, decided to change her job to avoid a crazy commute. “I was working for a publisher in Pimlico and living in Battersea. It was a 15-minute cycle and it was perfect because I could put some good music on and work out on the way into the office. When they changed offices to get cheaper rent just north of Kings Cross, my bike ride increased to 45 minutes. Firstly, I do not have the sort of fitness that allows me to cycle for 90 minutes every day, and my wage was too low to afford the tube. I decided to change my job because even the thought of getting up an hour earlier to get to work in winter made me feel queasy. Now my commute is more central and I have the same amount of money I did before.”

Changing career can sound like more hassle than it’s worth, but when we’re spending longer at work than the rest of Europe, perhaps drastic action is appropriate. Caley says: “I’m considering a career change as my commute is 1 hour 30 each way. It felt reasonable until I had a child. Now, the idea of spending three hours a day without [my daughter] but not doing anything meaningful for myself or the world is abhorrent.”

If you love your job, or your remote living arrangements, then there are alternatives to improve your commute. Firstly, try asking your boss if you can work at home one day a week. Janet* uses Southern Rail to commute to work from Gatwick, and was arriving late every day. “My stress levels were going through the roof. I was taking earlier and earlier trains, to no avail. In the end my manager realised how stressed I was and let me work from home on Fridays. I’m now far more productive, and marginally less stressed in general.”

Using your commute to do something productive is one way to feel more fulfilled. “I once wrote a 50,000 word novel using my iPhone during my commute,” says Katy. “It was probably terrible and filled with plot holes, but it gave my commute a renewed focus and I actually looked forward to getting on the bus so I could immerse myself in this different world.”

Others recommend using the time to listen to a new album, or spending time listening to good podcasts. “I’ve found the worst thing I can do during a commute is use social media or watch YouTube clips. It makes me feel like I’m wasting my life,” adds Katy.

Commuting isn't going to go away (unless we all become freelancers), but there are certainly ways we could – and should – minimise the length of our journeys. It looks like we’ll be wedded to work for longer than any previous generation so let’s make it work for us, rather than being slaves to the rails.
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