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Commuting can have negative effect on mental, physical health

For students, faculty and staff at UW-River Falls, commuting is almost inevitable in some way, shape or form.

According to a USA Today report, the average American’s commute (to work) is 25.5 minutes each way. This averages to about 204 hours per year spent commuting.

Commuting can impact one’s mental and physical health along with general well-being. Multiple studies have found that commuters are more likely to be anxious, dissatisfied and have the sense that their daily activities lack meaning.

As seen by a Minnesota Department of Transportation camera, midmorning Thursday traffic moves along Interstate 94 near the bridge over the St. Croix River at Hudson. (Screen capture)

As seen by a Minnesota Department of Transportation camera, midmorning Thursday traffic moves along Interstate 94 near the bridge over the St. Croix River at Hudson. (Screen capture)

Lengthy commutes, between 60 and 90 minutes long, have the most negative effect on personal well-being according to the Office for National Statistics.

The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports, driving more than 10 miles each way is associated with higher blood sugar, which can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes. This drive is also associated with higher cholesterol, which is a warning sign for heart disease.

The University School of Medicine in Saint Louis and the Cooper Institute in Dallas also reports that a commute of at least 10 miles can lead to a higher tendency towards depression, anxiety and social isolation.

A report from the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics found that people with commutes of any length experience lower life satisfaction and happiness than people with no commutes at all. Each additional minute of commuting time can make you feel slightly worse up to a certain point; however, this same study found that once a commute hits three hours then the negative effects drop off.

Commuting can also cause one’s blood pressure to temporarily spike, and high blood pressure over time is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

When asked what the main cause of stress is associated with commuting to UWRF, the number one response from student commuters was parking.

Communication studies professor Steve Phalen, who commutes from downtown Hudson, Wisconsin, also said the amount of traffic can add to his stress.

“There are people shooting down the left-hand lane, cutting in front of everyone, and I don’t appreciate that, but I combat that through loud music and taking a moment to breathe,” Phalen said.

A longer commute also can also contribute to lower sleep quality and more exhaustion in comparison to people with shorter commutes, according to the Regus Work-Life Balance Index for 2012.

Gaoee Xiong, a junior sociology major who commutes from Hudson experiences this first hand.

“I have to get up a lot earlier than students who don’t commute, because I have to make sure I save time to drive here, find parking, then walk to class,” Xiong said.

With extra time spent in the car, one may also find they have less time for cardiovascular fitness and physical activity. Cardiovascular fitness is critical for heart health and maintaining a healthy weight.

“If you’re commuting, that takes time which means you’re sitting so that may take away time for you to get physical activity. You may also not eat as healthy,” said Director of Counseling and Health Services Alice Reilly-Myklebust. “I don’t know if it’s commuting that causes the problem, or what goes along with commuting.”

Another health risk associated with commuting is back pain. Spending time slouched in a car seat has negative impacts on one’s posture and back.

“I keep active in other aspects of my life so I’m not worried about the duration of sitting,” Phalen said.

Being in Wisconsin, commuters also have the added stress of unpredictable weather.

“In the winter months, it would be harder for me to get to class, so that added to my stress,” Xiong said.

In contrast to the negative affects commuting can place on the body, Phalen also sees the positives.

“What I appreciate about the commute is that’s 15 to 20 minutes where I have complete and utter space to think about absolutely nothing if I so choose. It allows for a mental reset between River Falls and Hudson,” Phalen said. “And because this job doesn’t have clear work-life boundaries, having that physical separation on that commute is actually a transit that helps me physically to get space.”

For students who commute, they may also find their time to be limited on campus for activities such as meeting with professors, completing assignments or projects that require one to be on campus, or even participating in on-campus activities which can add to a strain on mental and physical health and well-being.

Luckily for students, though, there are a variety of resources available on campus to help combat the physical and mental effects they may feel from commuting.

“If they have the time to take advantage of resources on campus that can help, we do a lot of things on campus to help students get physical activity, reduce stress and stay healthy,” Reilly-Myklebust said. “There are a lot of activities on campus that will help students to grow in a variety of ways.”

A popular activity to combat stress is Pet Therapy. The first Friday of every month, therapy dogs visit the Career Resource Room in 211 Hagestad Hall. The UWRF community is welcome to come get some canine comfort from 3-4 p.m. and to pet their stress away.

Also coming up is the Health Fair, which will be held on April 22 in the Riverview Ballroom in the University Center. The fair this year has a marathon theme and is open to the public. There will be fitness and yoga demonstrations along with free massages.

Students also have access to the Knowles Center, which offers hours worth of open recreation. Open recreation basketball, volleyball and tennis are all available for free with just a valid UWRF student ID. Check the calendar on the university’s website for exact times for open recreation.

If commuting doesn’t allow students to attend any of these events, there is a guide on the UWRF website that can help in any health situation. The “Healthy Living Resource Guide” can be found online and can help point students, faculty and staff in the right direction for any health needs with resources not just on campus, but throughout the community of River Falls and stretching into Hudson.

The Student Voice will be running several commuting stories over the next month in an effort to discover how commuting affects the campus and community.

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