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The health effects of long commutes

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How long is your daily commute to work? The average commute lasts 25.4 minutes, but many New Yorkers easily beat those numbers day in and day out. Kathy Carrera, a mom of four from Sheepshead Bay, says that her commute includes a bus and a train, and takes about 90 minutes each way — if there is no train traffic, late buses, or stalled subway signals.

Technically, this would categorize Carrera as an extreme commuter.

“It definitely gets harder in the winter and as the temperatures dip, my stress level goes up!” she says.

With so much time spent in buses and cars, not to mention ferries and railroads, commuting can often seem like the ultimate waste in a busy life. Even worse, it can become a factor leading to overall life dissatisfaction and even bad health. A Swedish study finds that couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce. In addition, longer commutes are believed to cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, stress, and insomnia. Today, one in every six workers spends 45 minutes commuting each way, and 3.5 million Americans spend more than 90 minutes and are categorized as “extreme commuters.”

Moreover, the resulting health ramifications combined with the mental stressors can be damaging. People with long transit times suffer from disproportionate pain, stress, obesity, and dissatisfaction.

Economist John Kain wrote back in 1965, that it is “crucial that, in making longer journeys to work, households incur larger costs in both time and money. Since time is a scarce commodity, workers should demand some compensation for the time they spend in commuting.”

But would getting compensated for our long commutes help? Two economists at the University of Zurich — Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer — actually went about quantifying it, in a now-famous 2004 paper entitled “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that for an extra hour of commuting time, you would need to be compensated with a massive 40 percent increase in salary to make it worthwhile. Imagine that for people who commute three hours a day or more. Not likely happening any time soon.

Carrera finds there are times when she can actually find her commute relaxing.

“When I get a seat on the bus and train, and have time to read a book and zone out, I enjoy it. I guess a lot of it is how you look at it,” she says.

Carrera is right, perspective is everything, and while you may not want to take a job that is very far away, when you already have one, you are faced with two choices: either look for another job closer to home or learn how to accept a longer commute, because allowing yourself to be stressed on a daily basis is never a good health option.

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Sullivan also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Babble.com. Find Sullivan on her blogs, Just Write Mom and Some Puppy To Love.

Updated 5:31 pm, December 9, 2016
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