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03-11-2011 | Psychology | Article

Commuting could be bad for your health


Free abstract

MedWire News: Commuting by car or public transport for 30 to 60 minutes per journey negatively affects a person's health, Swedish researchers report.

"The need for a mobile workforce inevitably means that the length of the total work day (working and traveling time) will increase, but the health effects of commuting have been surprisingly little studied apart from perceived stress and the benefits of physically active commuting," explain Erik Hansson and colleagues from Lund University.

To further investigate the association between commuting and health outcomes, the researchers used data from two cross-sectional population-based public health surveys performed in 2004 and 2008 in the Scania region of Sweden (population 1.2 million).

The surveys included questions about perceived sleep quality, everyday stress, exhaustion, mental health, self-reported health, and absence from work due to sickness during the previous 12 months, and also about the duration (<30 min, 30-60 min, and >60 min) and mode (car, public transport, walking, cycling) of commuting.

The final study population included 21,088 people aged 18-65 years, working more than 30 hours per week.

The researchers found that car and active commuters were generally older than those who used public transport, more men than women used cars, and men commuted for longer periods. Among those with long duration of commute, especially by public transport, a larger proportion had a university education.

Job characteristics differed between commuting categories with psychologic demands, control, overtime, and income increasing with commuting time, and being higher for car commuters than for public transport or active (cycling or walking) commuters.

Compared with active commuters with a journey time of less than 30 minutes, health outcomes declined with increasing time spent commuting by public transport. Specifically, commuters who used public transport for more than 60 minutes per journey were approximately 20% more likely to report sleep disturbance, everyday stress, low mental health, and exhaustion, and 44% more likely to rate their health as "low", after adjustment for gender, age, socioeconomic status, a family situation, overtime, job strain, and residential location.

For car commuters, the highest levels of poor health were observed among those with journey times of 30-60 minutes.

This may be because "long-distance car commuting may not actually be particularly harmful to health, especially in this geographical area, where a longer than 1-hour car commute does not imply more than 1 hour of intense rush-hour traffic, but in most cases some tranquil countryside driving, which may offer the possibility of relaxation and give a feeling of flow," the researchers remark.

Level of sickness absence was highest among people who had journey times of 30-60 minutes, regardless of whether they travelled by car or public transport.

Hansson and co-authors point out that the cross-sectional nature of the study makes it impossible to say that commuting caused the poor health outcomes, and "it is likely that other problems related to health and everyday life affect choices concerning commuting," they write in the journal BMC Public Health.

Nonetheless, "the negative effects of commuting on health must be included in discussions on the expansion of economic regions and increasing the mobility of the workforce," they conclude.

By Laura Dean

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