Image: Rush hour traffic
Michael Reynolds  /  EPA file
A general view of rush hour traffic in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington, D.C. Research shows longer commutes can lead to health problems.
By contributor
updated 2/2/2011 8:59:43 AM ET 2011-02-02T13:59:43

Even if you work at your dream job, chances are it's not just a hop, skip and a jump down the street. In fact, a recent national survey shows it takes most of us a 46-minute round-trip to get to and from work. That's nearly four hours a week. With the extreme winter weather making some already lengthy commutes even more of a slog, it can turn into a major health drag.

Whether you carpool, ride the train or take your own wheels, a lengthy commute can increase stress, bring on fatigue and contribute to your waistline, experts say. What’s more, people with longer commutes tend to have higher cholesterol and more neck and back pain.

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Not surprisingly, the longer it takes you to get from home to work and back each day, the less happy you are. “My commute was making me crazy, and it consistently put me in a bad mood. I kept comparing it to my best commute ever, in which I traveled 17 miles in 30 minutes,” says Rick Umali, who’s commuted 45 minutes (on average) from Arlington to Cambridge, Mass., since 2005.

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Here’s how to take back your commute and make it healthier.

Train trouble
Your trip to work turns you into a worrier — 32 percent of people with an average commute length say they're worrywarts, a 2010 Gallup poll shows.

The fix: When you let the mind wander during a commute, it likely lands on negative thoughts. Instead, plug into some gut-busting laughs with a standup comedy podcast. A good laugh lowers levels of stress hormones — not to mention helps distract you from your enormous to-do list — and fills downtime, leaving less for worrying.

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If you ride the subway, bus or train, practice a sensory meditation by closing your eyes and feeling the movement or vibration, relaxing into the gentle rocking motion of the vehicle suggests Jonathan S. Kaplan, a New York City clinical psychologist and author of the 2010 book “Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence and Purpose in the Middle of it All.” “You can also do a thinking meditation by looking around and imagining what would make each person around you laugh, or what you have in common with them.” Those little mind games divert worrying.

Automobile anguish
Can't fathom another long, boring commute that makes your mood plummet? Watch out: Boredom can actually kill. Last year, British researchers published a paper that suggested a link between chronic listlessness and heart problems .

The fix: “Some people think of the commute as a prison — stuck in the car — so change your focus and try to do something more fun,” says Steve Orma, a psychologist in San Francisco. Play your favorite tunes and sing, or listen to books on audio (finding out what happens to the characters in the novel helps you look forward to something pleasurable). Spend the time learning a language or listening to a work-related seminar. Some universities have entire semester courses available for free audio download. Brainstorm an idea for work or problem solve an issue in your personal life. “Find ways to occupy your time and change your focus and the commute will go by quicker and the ride will be more enjoyable,” says Orma.

Highway hell
Rush-hour traffic sends your shoulders toward your ears in tension.

The fix:  It's physically impossible to be both stressed and relaxed at the same time. During your commute, purposefully try to relax. When we’re tense and anxious, we tend to take shallow breaths from the chest. Instead, take five deep breaths from the diaphragm. Check in with your body and let tension go. Roll your shoulders, loosen your grip on the wheel and spread out your fingers. Most people hold tension in their neck and back, so try to keep yours relaxed and stretch your neck from side to side when you’re safely stopped.

Commuter chaos
The drive leaves you ticked off and filled with road rage.  And according to a recent study, road rage is real: Experts call it intermittent explosive disorder and say it affects up to 16 million Americans—maybe you’ve seen a few.

The fix: Feel like traffic is getting worse? It is. A 2010 Urban Mobility Report finds stop and go gridlock has increased in every area since 1982. Worse, driving to work feels like a waste of time if you let it, compounding the urge to get it over with. If it’s going to take X amount of time to get to work, accept that and make the best of your time.

Discuss: How you do cope with your commute?

Reframe your thinking, and instead of letting anger over traffic or aggressive drivers make you act the same way, use this “downtime” in a positive, productive way. Umali, the Massachusetts commuter, stopped looking at the trip odometer. When he took the focus off how long the commute was taking, he stopped driving aggressively and started to value his commute time, listening to whole albums on CD or funny podcasts. “I feel that my blood pressure is a lot lower. Even though I may not get to the end of Third Street or to Tufts University at my 'expected time,' I still somehow arrive at work or home at roughly the same time.”

Subway stymie
Crowds, late trains, construction or inconsiderate commuters rob you of joy and a feeling of wellness.

The fix: Use the power of your mind to change your emotional reaction. “If you let the commute do its magic, you’ll feel miserable, so take that attention and put it elsewhere,” says Kaplan. The effects of gratitude and the ability to get in touch emotionally with a sense of thankfulness or appreciation about something can turn fatigue and resentment around.

Ask yourself, "What am I grateful for today?" And then find something that really resonates. It can be fairly simple, like the kiss you got from your partner or the hug from your child — or maybe that the drive in was a breeze for once. Create a mental gratitude list and focus on it on the way to or from work. You may just arrive at your destination in a more content physical and emotional state.

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