Commuter health: how to stay healthy – and sane – on your daily commute

So, I read an article in The Irish Times about Ireland’s long haul commuters (Limerick to Dublin commuters – I salute you!) and it inspired me to write about an aspect of commuting  I think is most important but that I don’t see covered regularly – commuter health.

If you’ve never really commuted or you enjoy a leisurely 25 minute cycle into the office, you’re probably thinking ‘commuter health? But they’re just sitting still for an hour!” Yes, I once thought that about commuting too. Then I had a bad experience with a greedy landlord (you know who you are) who wanted to exploit the housing crisis and I quickly found myself with nowhere to stay and forced into a two hour commute each day. Both ways.

To say it was a shock to the system would be an understatement. Let’s just say I went from smiley Ken Cosgrove to Season 7 Pete Campbell in six weeks.

tommy tiernan father ted lisa hughes blogCommuter stress and anxiety is real and usually stems from the fact you’re out of control, completely dependent on a plethora of factors outside your control and all you want to do is get home. Not to mention spending more time in a piece of metal on wheels instead of with your loved ones – or y’know living your life – is deeply frustrating and can make you question where you went wrong in life. Not exactly mood-boosting stuff. Before you know it, you’re Tommy Tiernan on the bus in Father Ted.

Commuting takes its toll on your physical health too and the effects range from eating more junk food just to revive your flagging energy to high blood pressure from the stress of rush hour. Just sitting still for those extra hours each day contributes to how sedentary your lifestyle is and we all know by now that active is good, sedentary is bad.

But, the reality is that walking or cycling to work is just not an option for everyone. While the average commute in Ireland is 30 minutes, with the rental crisis in full swing and showing no sign of slowing down any time soon and the average rent in Ireland now €1,111 per month, long haul commuting (by that I mean anything over an hour) is set to become more commonplace in Ireland. So it’s time we took it seriously and the negative impact commuting can have on our health.

Here’s a few tips for staying healthy when you’re commuting each day:

– Snack wisely. After a painfully early start, your energy will hit slo-mo before everyone else’s in the office. As a result, it’s easy to get into the habit of guzzling sugary soft drinks and relying on sugar to make you less of a zombie. Instead, ditch the vending machine and bring unsalted nuts, seeds and dried fruit into work.  And stay hydrated to fight the brain fog.

– Meal prep. When you’re not on the bus or train, a commuter’s time is precious so the last thing you’re gonna want to do is cook a meal from scratch each night. Bulk prepare healthy meals like soups, stews and bakes on a Sunday for the week ahead.  For lunch, try to always include a good source of protein and nutritious, slow energy releasing grains like quinoa and buckwheat.

– Switch off. Instead of scrolling through viral videos on Facebook for two hours, give your eyes – and brain – a rest and listen to a podcast like You Must Remember This or an audio book. Even better, take it as an opportunity to look after your mental health, download Calm or Headspace and meditate. All you need is ten minutes and you’ll be amazed at how much calmer you feel.

– Use your time wisely. I had a particularly long daily commute so I found that using that time in transit to do things like take my makeup off meant I had less to do when I finally did get home so I could actually watch some TV and pretend I didn’t feel dead inside. So yes, this meant applying a face mask on the bus once a week (conveniently timed for when I’d be in the tunnel).

– Pack in exercise where you can. I met a regular commuter once who went to the gym after her marathon 2 hour commute because she was gaining weight from her less active lifestyle. You don’t need to hit the gym though – small things like taking the stairs at work, walking around the park on your lunch break, walking to and from the bus/train and going for hikes or cycles at the weekend are great ways to inject fitness into the commuting cycle.

– Nap. Although I wish I could, I can’t sleep in transit but I’m reliably informed that napping for 15-45 minutes is not only a great way to kill time, it’s the best way to let your body and brain recharge after a long day.

– Just accept it. Your mindset while you’re stuck in traffic is half the battle. Until I had to do it, I had no idea how stressful commuting is. I used public transport so I can only speak about that experience but there seemed to constantly be a delay or if it was remotely windy, the Irish transport system had a crack up. One night I remember in particular involved a broken down bus and a 45 minute wait on the motorway. Big deal, right? Well, when your alarm clock is set for 5.45am the next day and you’re not even halfway up the road, that extra 45 minute delay is excruciating. Instead of using up my last scrap of energy giving myself an ulcer, I realised there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to accept it and weirdly, I felt instantly better.

– Remember it’s a means to an end. Chances are you’re commuting to save money or because your quality of life is better outside a major city or because you’re hoping you’ll be made a permanent member of the team and can then justify Dublin’s extortionate rents. When you’re stuck in traffic or your bus is delayed or you’re apoplectic with rage because your commute is stealing your youth, remember why you’re doing this. And just breathe.

If you want to read more about the negative impact of commuting on health, try this Royal Society for Public Health report.  Got a tip for staying healthy while commuting? Tell me in the comments!


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