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Beep! Beep! That creeping commute is hurting your health

A new study finds that long commutes could have a negative impact on your health. WCAU's Dawn Timmeney reports.

By Bill Briggs

Sure, speed kills. But new science suggests your sluggish slog from home to work (and back again) is slowly sucking the life out of you -- exit by excruciating exit. 

Commuters who log 16 or more miles each way on their daily haul to the job tend to pack plumper paunches and post higher blood pressure when compared to those with shorter excursions, according to the first research exploring the intersection of travel distances and health impacts.

Clogged roads seem to clog arteries, in part, by eating into potential gym minutes. Among folks who drive 16-plus miles to earn a paycheck, the prevalence of obesity is almost 9 percent higher while the rate of fitness is nearly 9 percent lower versus those who journey six to 10 miles, according to a study published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. (Those numbers are not adjusted for age or gender).


“Part of it is that people with longer commutes aren’t exercising as much. But there could be other factors like they’re eating (fast food) while driving or they’re getting less sleep because they don’t have as much discretionary time,” said Christine M. Hoehner, the study’s lead investigator and an assistant professor in the department of surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

By mapping the daily drives and dissecting the health scores of 4,297 residents from two Texas metro areas, Dallas and Austin, Hoehner and her colleagues distilled the mile-by-mile health hazards linked to sitting behind the wheel.

Take, for example, Body Mass Index -- a calculation of stored fat based on height and weight. (A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal). For every 10-mile increase in your driving distance, your BMI rises by .17 units, Hoehner said. So if you’re already on the cusp of an unhealthy BMI -- say at 24.5 -- adding 15 miles to your foray -- each way -- will nudge you into the danger zone.

The daily drive has taken a toll on Sharon Binford, part of the marketing and development team at an online office supply retailer. She has a roughly 30-mile commute to and from her home in White Plains, N.Y., and her office in Manhattan, spanning 1 hour and 20 minutes each way.

“I am more tired, so I think my mood and activity level have been affected” by the daily trek, said Binford, 25. Before she got her current job, she didn’t drive to work.

“Before, I would have avocados and tomato, or strawberry and yogurt, or eggs-and-bacon breakfasts. Now, I eat cereal in the mornings -- Special K Red Berries, but it’s still all carbs instead of almost none,” Binford said. “I used to spend about an hour running three times a week. Now, I try to occasionally squeeze in a half-hour run during my hour lunch break.”

Americans are, indeed, spending slightly more time collectively navigating to and from their jobs. In 2010, 8 percent of U.S. workers had one-way commutes of one hour or more -- up from 7.8 percent in 2009, said Brian McKenzie, a commuting analyst at the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the true traffic terrors are, of course, found on the local levels, especially in cities where far-flung suburbs offer more affordable housing. According to INRIX, a traffic information provider that ranks the worst municipal commutes, the most congested cities in 2010 were, in order, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. then Dallas/Fort Worth -- where Hoehner conducted much of her study.

And, hardly shocking to any fuming driver who routinely winces at an agonizing line of brake lights, Hoehner found that longer commutes are more likely to fuel stress levels.

“It’s about the chronic stress: daily exposure to traffic, the hassles of not being able to predict when you’ll arrive, and having no control over your time because of that traffic,” Hoehner said.

About one-third of the commuters Hoehner analyzed notched 16 or more miles getting to work. The prevalence of elevated blood pressure in that group was about 52 percent. Meanwhile, slightly more than half the drivers studied needed 10 miles or less to reach their jobsite or office. The rate of high blood pressure in that portion: about 45 percent.

So, honk if you hate the guy driving one car ahead -- and the other 500 beyond. They’re killing you.

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A Siberian husky named Shiro and her owner have a bonding ritual of hand-and-paw holding during their daily commute; in fact, Shiro whimpers when she's not holding his hand. TODAY's Natalie Morales takes a look at the adorable video.