By Rebecca Zamon
For most people, a commute to and from work is part of daily life, something to be endured and only occasionally enjoyed, depending on your method.
But for researchers who look at how certain routines can affect your life, the daily occurrence of the commute can have a huge impact on everything from your mood to your stress levels to even the general state of your mental health.
According to the New York Times, long driving commutes have been linked with a greater risk for depression, anxiety and social isolation, not to mention higher levels of stress and blood pressure.
And it's no surprise cars were singled out in these cases — a study from McGill University last year by urban planning professor Ahmed M. El-Geneidy, along with then-student Alexander Legrain and assistant professor Naveen Eluru, compared different types of commutes in the urban setting of Montreal, and found that driving was by far considered the most stressful.
From there, it went in order of most to least stressful: buses, subways, commuter trains and walking. Biking, which was found to be comparable to walking, had to be discounted due to a small sample size.
"Some people will think public transport is the most stressful, but that wasn't the case," El-Geneidy tells The Huffington Post Canada.
Even methods that could ease stress, like planning for traffic, worked against the drivers.
"Drivers must budget a considerable amount of extra time to deal with unexpected delays (their additional time budget has a mean of 21 minutes), and are more likely to be stressed when they are less satisfied with the time of their commute," the study reads.
In another paper from the University of Waterloo that examined people's perceptions of their well-being in relation to their commute, driving and traffic congestion played a huge role as well.
"If you compare driving 30 minutes on a country road with nice scenery and good music vs. driving 30 minutes in a downtown setting where you go maybe three blocks in that time, it's a different experience," says Margo Hilbrecht, who wrote the study along with Steven Mock and Bryan Smale.
Meanwhile, the unpredictability of public transit played a role as well, with El-Geneidy noting that "the unknown" when it came to waiting times would increase people's stress levels. While many commuter trains and subways now display accurate scheduling information, that isn't yet the case for many buses, leading to higher dissatisfaction.
Commuter trains and subways, meanwhile, lay somewhere in the middle likely thanks to the allowance they give for activities like reading, texting or just relaxing or what Hilbrecht terms "time for self, with no demands from others."
As far as solutions go, both researchers acknowledge it's not possible for everyone to walk to work or to stop commuting altogether — though they both floated that as the best scenario for people's mental health. They also suggest the possibility of telecommuting as a potential answer.
In Hilbrecht's study, it was found that those who made time for physical activity in their day had higher life satisfaction, so she recommends making that a priority whenever possible. From El-Geneidy's perspective, having alternative forms of transportation available can ease the burden felt by those confined to only driving or taking the bus, for example.
“If you include physical activity in your daily life, like a walk at lunch or making time to do something,” says Hilbrecht, “it can make you feel less pressured for time, and feel better about your life as a whole.”
Margo Hilbrecht, Bryan Smale & Steven E. Mock (2014) Highway to health? Commute time and well-being among Canadian adults, World Leisure Journal, 56:2, 151-163, DOI:10.1080/16078055.2014.903723
Canadian Index of Wellbeing: Margo Hilbrect, PhD is the Associate Director, Research and Bryan Smale, PhD is the Director