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Driving to Work Might be a Health Hazard

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GEORGIA DAVIS
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Driving long distances on congested roads is part of the daily grind for millions of Americans. Commuting between the home in the suburbs and the workplace downtown has been a common phenomenon since the 50s and 60s and the hassle has only become worse ever since.

In a recently published study, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis tried to shed some light on the impact of commuting on drivers' health, and found that driving long distances on a twice-daily basis can substantially increase the risk of developing weight problems, heart disease and lung disease.

"The study was the first to show that long commutes can take away from exercise and are associated with higher weight, lower fitness levels and higher blood pressure, and all of these are strong predictors of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers," said Dr. Christine Hoehner, the lead researcher of the study, which was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The research was conducted in the areas of Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, Texas, where most people go to work by car. The more time they spend behind the wheel, the less opportunities they have to do other things, including activities that would benefit their physical health. That is bound to have consequences over time, Hoehner suggested.

She and her colleagues also tested commuters' heart and lung health, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglycerides and blood sugar. Those who traveled more than 10 miles each way showed higher risk levels in most categories. "It looks like the threshold was a commute distance of 10 miles for blood pressure," she said. The risk of becoming obese increased at 15 miles or more because of a daily commute.

It's not just the sedentary lifestyle that comes with long distance commuting. Driving on congested highways is also a source of considerable stress. People are locked in a situation they absolutely hate but can do little about. And the same scenario repeats itself five days a week.

"Learning how to cope with the stress of commuting could help limit the negative health effects," said Dr. Redford Williams, professor of medicine and director of the Behavioural Medicine Research Center at Duke University. But that is a difficult undertaking because people feel they have almost no control. In the current economy, most workers are forced to take jobs where they can find them, even if it means driving for an hour and a half or longer every single day.

While not much can be changed about traffic situations on an individual basis -- other than moving closer to the workplace, which is not always a realistic option -- long-distance drivers can benefit from getting a workout or at least going on a swift walk around the block during lunchtime. Also, people who like to eat in the car while driving (a common trend among commuters) may reconsider their habits, especially since most of the food choices for the road are less than healthy, i.e. fast food and snack items.