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Over the past 50 years, society has had a laser-like focus on determining how we can get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Perhaps no invention did more to decrease our levels of activity than the automobile. Owning a car enables us to build large, less expensive houses in the suburbs. But in turn, we are forced to commute several hours per week. And sitting in a car for all that time is about as sedentary as you can get.

According to one report, the way we have designed our way of life around automobiles could be a leading cause of obesity. After analyzing data collected over a 30-year period, scientists discovered that the correlation between vehicle use and obesity rates was an unusually high 98 percent. While driving is admittedly convenient and the only practical option in many cases, it has a hidden cost.

In one study, when a group of otherwise healthy men were assigned to use crutches and place no weight on one of their legs, it produced swift physiological changes. After just 48 hours, a biopsy of muscle from the inactive leg revealed disruptions in DNA repair, rising oxidative stress, slowing insulin response, and slowing metabolic activity. What’s worse, these changes persisted after their activity resumed.

This study suggests that extended periods of inactivity, such as long car rides or flights, could create permanent changes if you get virtually no activity for 24-48 hours. Take small steps, literally, to counteract sedentary days. Get up regularly on long flights. Make stops every couple of hours on road trips. When you arrive at your destination, get some exercise right away. If you have ever spent a few days in a hospital bed, you may have noticed how it takes up to a week or two for your muscles to fully recover from the inactivity.

If you or your spouse is considering a new job opportunity that requires a long commute, give it serious thought. A Swedish study found that couples in which one partner has a commute longer than 45 minutes are a whopping 40 percent more likely to get divorced. When making a decision about where to live or work, it is easy to underestimate the time you lose with loved ones sitting in a car for an hour or more each day.

A classic study titled Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox found that not even a big pay raise or larger house is worth it if you have to add an hour to your commute. These researchers found that for every extra hour of total commuting time per day, you would need a corresponding 40 percent increase in your salary to make the added car time worthwhile. Whenever you are considering a major move — for school, work, or a new home — start by asking if it will help you spend less time commuting and more time with the people who matter.

If you have no choice but to make an extended daily commute, think about how you could cut back on your total drive time. Could you adjust your work schedule so your commute is during off hours when there is less traffic? Ask your employer if telecommuting is an option one or two days a week. On days when you don’t need to physically be in the office — for meetings or other in-person obligations — spending a couple hours in a car is a waste of your time, your well-being, and otherwise productive hours.


For direct links to any studies referenced in this article, see the Eat Move Sleep Reference Explorer application.

Adapted from the book Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath (Missionday, 2013).