5 Ways Commuting Ruins Your Life

Hours spent driving can wreck finances, health, and marriage.

Gas prices have risen 16 cents per gallon this month, according to GasBuddy.com, a site and app that tracks gas prices nationwide, and now hover at $3.66-per-gallon. That’s bad news for millions of Americans who commute daily by car.

Around 2.2 million U.S. workers have a daily commute of at least an hour to and from work, according to the “American Community Survey” by the U.S. Census, and 600,000 full-time workers are so-called super-commuters, spending 90 minutes and traveling 50 miles to get to work every day. The good news: “Gas prices are the highest in July and August, but go down in September,” says Jason Toews, co-founder of GasBuddy.

“Many people aren’t aware of how much they actually spend on commuting,” says Rob Perkins, transportation campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The NRDC found that commuters spend $2,180 to and from work in urban areas and $3,347 in the suburbs, while rural commuters spend $4,272 a year. Those who don’t commute to work only spend $1,857 a year on gas.

Here are five other ways commuting may damage your financial, physical and even emotional health.

1. Causes neck and back problems

One-in-three employees with a commute of more than 90 minutes report either a neck or back condition that has caused them pain in the previous 12 months, according to a 2010 survey of over 173,500 working adults by Gallup. While it’s difficult to know for certain what causes these problems — sitting at a computer may not help — only one-in-four of those who commuted 10 minutes or less reported similar problems.

Health experts suggest commuters employ the same tactics preferred by frequent fliers, such as a towel rolled up behind the lower back. More commuting also leads to less exercise and less sleep, a 2009 Brown University study found, which can cause further aches and pains down the road.

2. Breaks up marriages

A long commute could increase the chances of separation and the risk of divorce by 40 percent, according to a 2011 study carried out by social geographer Erika Sandow at Umeå University in Sweden, whose research was based on 2 million co-habiting Swedes from 1995 to 2005.

Many of those commuters have small children and the majority of them are men, the study found. Such marital problems are most likely to occur in the first five years of long commutes, Sandow concluded. The reasons for the troubles could relate to the strained financial circumstances of long commuters and the fact that one partner ends up shouldering more domestic and childcare duties.

3. Makes you fat

All those hours spent driving take a toll, studies show. And it’s not just because commuting is a sedentary activity. “Longer commutes are also associated with an increased likelihood of non-grocery food purchases and … lower intensity exercise activities,” according to a 2009 study by the Department of Community Health at Brown University.

What’s more, people who drive 16 miles or more to work also tend to weigh more and have higher blood pressure, according to a survey of 4,300 commuters from Texas-Fort Worth published in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine” in 2012. Those who commuted 16 to 20 miles are over 50% more likely to be obese, and 33 percent less likely to get the weekly exercise considered healthy for Americans.

4. Destroys the planet

Americans spend an average three million miles on the road each year, Perkins says. While coal-fired power plants are the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the U.S., personal transportation comes in second and accounts for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, he says.

If 25 percent of the population adopted new driving behaviors like carpooling, greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 3- to 12-percent, saving billions of gallons of fuel, and resulting in potential savings of billions of dollars each year in gas, the Natural Resources Defense Council study found. An ambitious goal, but not an unrealistic one, Perkins says. “Anything we can do to reduce those emissions is a benefit,” he says.

5. Makes you depressed

The grass may be greener in the suburbs, but studies show commuters experience more stress. On a list of 16 daily activities, commuting was rated the least favorite behind working, housework and childcare, according to a 2012 paper published in the “Journal of Economic Psychology” by Christian Kroll, a research fellow at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany and Sebastian Pokutta, assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology (“Intimate relations” was the favorite).

“Buying a house in the suburbs comes at a price for people’s well-being that’s not so obvious at first sight,” Kroll says. And 40 percent of those who commuted over 90 minutes a day were likely to worry versus 28 percent of those with a commute of 10 minutes or less, the 2010 “Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index” found.

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