Two years ago, you may have been speed walking into your workplace, juggling a spilling coffee cup and a stank attitude because your commute, to put it frankly, sucked.
Then the pandemic hit, changing what it means to “go to work” (for many people) and shedding light on how your commute — and the crowded trains and traffic jams that go with it — might have been affecting your mental and physical health more than you realized.
In fact, can you still call it “the rat race” without the frantic daily scramble to get from point A to B?
There’s research to back up the feeling that commuting might not be great for your health. Study after study shows commuting is linked to stress and unpredictability that can have a negative effect on your sleep, blood pressure, relationships, and much more.
“Stress correlates with a lot of medical and physical health effects, so anything that's going to add to that like commuting I think should be taken very seriously,” said Dr. Marlynn Wei, a psychotherapist who specializes in mindfulness-integrated psychiatry.
Of course, not everyone stopped commuting during the pandemic, as working from home was not an option for many people. However, for those who were able to work remotely, it’s safe to say that a relative minority have fond memories of their prepandemic commute.
A 2020 survey found that the majority of people in the US who worked remotely said their lack of commute gave them more time to focus on their health and family without affecting work productivity.
Before the pandemic, commutes were long — and getting longer. In 2019, the average one-way commute in the US reached a new high of 27.6 minutes, up from 25 minutes in 2006, according to Census Bureau data. (That’s an increase of about 10% over 14 years.)
We should say that commuting isn’t always terrible for your health. Walking to and from train stations or biking to work can offer health benefits and get you moving in a way that’s hard to do if you only commute from your bed to a desk in the corner of your room.
However, the shortcomings of the public transit systems plus the long distances from home to work in the US have made people dependent on cars — the mode of transportation associated with the worst health outcomes.
About 85% of US employees over 16, or about 133 million people, drove to work in 2019, Census Bureau data shows.
An additional 5% of US workers, or about 7.7 million people, used public transportation. (Public transportation is associated with even longer travel times; bus riders had an average commute of 46.6 minutes.)
Before the pandemic, only 2.6%, or 4.1 million people, walked to work and just 0.5%, or about 806,000 people, rode a bike.
A return to commuting may be stressful for many people
People who cursed traffic jams, crowded trains, and other commuting headaches before the pandemic will likely now have an added layer of stress in their lives as they return to traveling to a workplace, even if it’s less often than before.
And if you take public transportation, there’s the uncertainty over mask-wearing and potential exposure to germs that could cause COVID, flu, or something else.
“Those people who used to work from home and now have to commute again, it’s a different mental hurdle, one that takes some adjustment,” Wei said.
“You’ve gotten used to the routine of not commuting and having extra hours in the morning to be with family or spend time exercising, so there’s a sense of loss of time,” Wei said, adding that this mixup can disrupt people’s sleep schedules.
This means you may be more tired after your workday than you were when working remotely, she said. You also shouldn’t be surprised if you feel anxious the night before your commute because having to face the realities of commuting again for the first time in a while takes some adjusting.
“Having adaptability and flexibility is a big part of protecting your mental health because the back and forth has been stressful,” Wei said.
What the science says about driving to work
Driving can give you more control over your commute than public transportation. However, it also comes with unpredictability like traffic jams, accidents, poor weather, and road ragers, plus the added cost of owning, maintaining, repairing, and buying gas for a car.
“Our land-use policies have created automobile dependency because of single-use zoning and suburban sprawl, which basically separates where people live from every place they would like to go,” said James Sallis, a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health. “So we’ve created a system that enforces driving and removes options for walking and biking, meanwhile there are very limited options for public transit — and the difference in health impacts for cars versus active transportation are huge.”
A 2014 study of more than 3,400 people in Canada found that greater time spent commuting in a car was associated with lower life satisfaction and increased feelings of time pressure.
Richard Schmitz can relate. The 47-year-old used to drive from Northern Virginia into Washington, DC, every day for work, an unpredictable commute that ranged anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on weather, accidents, and other traffic events, he told BuzzFeed News.
“Just the impact on time was enormous,” he said, so much so that he switched jobs, and now only spends 15 minutes in the car and has the option of taking several routes if one is too busy.
“I certainly do not stress about whether or not I'm going to be on time for work or whether I’m going to have to deal with challenges of navigating,” Schmitz said. “Getting that time back has been the largest benefit for me.”
He’s not wrong for wanting to avoid that DC commute. The traffic jam is making a comeback there and in other cities, according to new data sent to BuzzFeed News from the navigation app Waze. The nation’s capital experienced the largest increase in traffic in the last eight months, up 12.5% in March 2022 compared with last July. Houston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles are the top runners-up.
How commuting can harm your health
Of course, none of this is good news, because sitting in traffic can expose you to unsafe levels of air pollution that contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular issues, according to the CDC. One 2007 study found that 33% to 45% of Los Angeles residents’ total exposure to ultrafine particulate matter occurs during car travel.
These tiny particles can worsen asthma and lung disease, and air pollution generated by cars can also contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone.
A study of over 4,000 people in Texas found that those who drove longer distances to work had a higher likelihood of obesity and high blood pressure, and were less likely to achieve the recommended amounts of daily physical activity.
This makes sense, Sallis told BuzzFeed News, because sitting down for extended periods of time while commuting promotes a sedentary lifestyle that can contribute to illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that workers who spend an hour or more commuting each day are more than three times more likely to deem their travels “very or somewhat” stressful. Another 2015 survey found that commuters in major European cities said their work travels are more stressful than their actual jobs.
Research also shows your social life can suffer the longer your commute. People who spent more than 20 minutes traveling to work were more likely to have less time for “socially-oriented trips,” such as visits to friends and family, exercising or playing sports, attending weddings, and going to religious celebrations.
This, of course, may hurt relationships too. A 2011 survey of people in Sweden found that long-distance commuters face a 40% higher risk of separating from their partners.
Not to mention, the time spent commuting can cut at the time you could spend sleeping.
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that each additional hour of commute time equaled 15 minutes of sleep loss, which, over time, may contribute to anxiety, brain fog, and potentially a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Public transportation, walking, and biking
Although driving is still the dominant mode of transportation in the US, the use of “alternative” modes of travel, including public transit, walking, biking, and working remotely, was on the rise before the pandemic, increasing from 9% in 2007 to 16% in 2018, a Gallup poll shows. That percentage likely isn’t higher, Sallis said, because public transit services in particular “are really poor and run relatively infrequently compared to other places.”
Train, bus, and other mass transportation commuters generally have to deal with long wait times due to delays and discomfort from overcrowding and noise, according to a study of Italian industrial workers. These commuters also reported greater stress, more health complaints, sleep problems, and more missed days from work because of sickness.
Part of the mental health drawbacks associated with public transportation in the US is that these commuters “are users out of necessity,” Sallis said, and being forced to do something or having only one travel option just makes the experience that much worse.
Trevor R., 39, told us his 30- to 40-minute train commute to work in DC before the pandemic wasn’t too bad, but it was a “hit-or-miss” experience thanks to delays, stuck elevators, and other “frustrations.” Now, he’s a fully remote employee, and the flexibility he’s gained from that switch, he said, is worth more than any benefits his commute might have given him.
“If you add it up, it's hundreds and hundreds of hours in time savings,” said Trevor, adding that he’s even more active and healthy now that he bought a treadmill that fits under his standing desk, walking more than 10 miles a day. “I wasn't overweight, but I feel like the love handles come off a little bit. And just from this simple activity, my mind is more active.”
You can still reap some physical benefits from being an active commuter. A 2014 study published in the BMJ found that men and women who cycled, walked, or used mass transportation to get to work were about 6.6 pounds and 5.5 pounds lighter, respectively, than those who drove.
Research published in 2012 found that public transit use was associated with an additional 8 to 33 minutes of walking per day; another study found that train commuters walked an average of 30% more steps per day than car commuters.
Walking and biking are likely even better for your health. A 2008 study found that this type of active commuting was associated with an 11% lower risk of developing heart problems, including stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Despite the clear benefits, the CDC says walking and cycling to work are pretty uncommon because of traffic safety concerns and lack of bike lanes and crosswalks.
How to manage commuting stress
With all this said, there are ways to manage the stress any type of commuting may bring. The experts we spoke to said the most important advice is to make the time you have count.
For example, if you’re driving or riding the train, you can listen to music or podcasts that calm you down or bring you joy. You can also listen to guided meditations that may help reduce anxiety and stress. Connecting with loved ones during commutes may be helpful, too.
Particularly if you’re working a hybrid schedule, going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, regardless of having to commute or not, can make the adjustment period easier on your body. And if possible, try going into work on the same day or days each week, and switching up your modes of transportation.
“As you figure out that balance, it’s helpful to understand what type of stress you’re under and how to reduce it,” Wei said. “Use this time to do things that are healthy for the mind and body.”