By Luisa D'Amato
The clock is ticking. Stopped traffic stretches out in front of you as far as the eye can see. You're going to be embarrassingly late for that 9 o'clock meeting.
Is it any wonder that your body would be screaming from stress — if it could talk?
Two different research studies on commuting came out this week. One says it's good for us, and the other says it isn't.
The optimistic view comes from a study commissioned by Toronto advertising firm Bensimon Byrne. It says the trip to and from work creates a relaxing transitional space in which to get ready or wind down gently.
The other study, from the University of Waterloo, has another viewpoint. "We found that the longer it takes someone to get to work, the lower their satisfaction with life in general," said Margo Hilbrecht, an applied health sciences professor and the associate director of research for the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.
I think the University of Waterloo has it right and not just because it's the home team.
Hilbrecht and her team analyzed data from Statistics Canada and discovered that long commutes are linked to a greater sense of time pressure and lower life satisfaction.
Not only is it bad for you to sit nearly motionless in your vehicle for so long, but you also have to deal with all the madness around you: Accidents, delays, bad weather and other drivers who make you nervous as they follow too closely or weave in and out of lanes.
Time pressure makes people do crazy things. Some years ago, I commuted regularly to Toronto. I've seen people read the paper while driving. Others put on eye liner, shaved their chins and texted on their cellphone.
Once, Highway 401 was backed up because a truck had spilled something all over the highway. I was on my way home and had to pick up my child at daycare. I realized I wasn't going to make it before closing time, and got off into the impenetrable wilderness somewhere around Milton. I thought I'd take the back roads and get home sooner. Instead, I just got lost.
That was a stressful day. But surely everyone who commutes to Toronto has a story like that.
You don't even have to go all the way to Toronto. How about Waterloo to Guelph, or Cambridge to Kitchener? The average round-trip commute in Waterloo Region is 42 minutes if you're driving by yourself, and one hour and 16 minutes if you go by bus.
American researchers have found that driving more than 16 kilometres each way (20 to 30 minutes) is associated with higher blood sugar levels, higher cholesterol, more depression and anxiety. The average American commute is right on that line at 50 minutes round-trip.
British research shows your sleep is more likely to suffer if you drive more than 45 minutes each way. And if you're worried about being late, it jacks up your blood pressure.
The difference between this and a calm commute where you can think your thoughts, appreciate some music or listen to a book being read aloud, is your time and your control of it.
If it doesn't matter when you arrive, if you get plenty of exercise in your daily routine and if your time is being used productively while you're travelling, then I'm sure a commute can be pleasant. But for most of us, that's a dream world.