How Long Commutes Can Affect Spine Health

February 15, 2019

Man sitting in a subway seat
Renée Bacher

Whether traveling by car, bus or train, the effect of long commutes every day can take a toll on your back.

According to an article in The Washington Post, the American commute is longer than ever, with commutes of 45 minutes growing by 3.5 percent; commutes of one hour growing by 5.1 percent; and extreme commutes of 90 minutes or more growing faster than any other category at 8 percent. Chances are, you fall into one of these categories. And commutes like these aren't just bad for your back, they can factor into neck pain, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

What Happens to Your Spine When You Sit for 45+ Minutes?

Humans weren't designed to do as much sitting as we do now that we have come to rely on machines to transport us to and from our jobs. Cavemen walked (or ran) everywhere. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people walked to work or rode on horseback, and even if they didn't, they were certainly more active than we are today at our jobs. The effect of long commutes is that while we're sitting for all that time (before we arrive for a day of even more sitting), we compress the veins and arteries in our legs. If we start slouching because we don't have enough room to sit up straight on the train, bus or car, the muscles that support the spine are not engaged and can begin to atrophy while the discs between our vertebrate can become compressed and the nerves pinched.

The short-term effect of long commutes can be back or neck pain, or a feeling of numbness in the buttocks or down the legs. The long-term effects can also include neck and back pain, in addition to fatigue, abnormal wear and tear on your joints that can lead to arthritis and a whole host of other conditions, particularly if you snack or eat meals during your long commute.

How To Stave Off the Long Term Effects Of Your Commute

If you're driving to work you can alleviate back pain by making sure your lower back is supported, either with tube-shaped pillow or a sweater rolled up and stuck between the seat and your pelvis. Wiggle your toes as much as possible and shift around in your seat when you're stopped at a red light. And don't eat while you drive. Not only is it a dangerous distraction from the task at hand, but eating while driving is calories your mind isn't actually registering — so you may not feel as full as you should after consuming that breakfast burrito on the way to work, and you might overeat later in the day. Also, consider carpooling with another driver. While the driver is pretty much locked into his or her seat, the passenger can move around a bit, and any kind of movement is better than no movement at all.

If you're riding on the subway or another type of commuter train, challenge yourself to stand for as much of the ride as possible. Simply standing up can alleviate back pain and, according to Forbes, standing burns more calories than sitting. Standing can also lower your blood pressure and improve your mood.

If you're riding on a bus with a bathroom, bring a water bottle for your commute, grab the aisle seat, drink up and visit the bathroom at least once on your way to and from work. Just that little bit of walking and moving can make a difference in how you feel. And if you live in a pedestrian-friendly city within walking or biking distance from work, it's a no-brainer to get there on your own steam. You'll save money and your back.

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