Does commuting take a toll on you?

More and more of us commute farther and farther to work than ever. An average Canadian spends 63 minutes per day on the round trip to and from work. That's 275 hours per year - nearly 12 full days spent in transit!

The truth is, these minutes and hours may seem idle, but they can take a toll on your health in lots of little ways. Aside from the known risks of auto accidents and collisions, there are a few more common, day-to-day dangers of spending so much time behind the wheel:

Honk if you're hurting: It's not just long-haul truckers who experience back pain and other aches after driving for a while. Whether you're in the driver's seat or riding shot-gun, sitting in a car for too long can worsen existing back pain and trigger new troubles.

Honk if your heart is in danger: The heartbreak of heavy traffic goes beyond the emotional stress. Research has turned up a correlation between commuting and heart health. The longer and farther a person's commute is - and the more transfers and changes in their route - the greater the risk of high blood pressure.

Honk if you're stressed: Tense moments - traffic snarls, veering to miss a squirrel, steering through fog or rain - can cause a stress reaction in your body. Adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol churn out, your muscles tense up, and your heart rate and respiration increase. Day after day of dealing with a bad commute can be a chronic stress.

Honk if you're missing out on healthy habits: Feel like you're spinning your wheels during your commute? It makes sense, since time spent on the road is time taken away from healthy habits, including getting enough sleep, physical activity, and nutritious food. According to a survey conducted by IBM, 31% of people claim they would get more exercise and more sleep if only their commute were not as long.

Honk if you're hacking: Spend any amount of time stuck in a car in a high-traffic zone and you'll be exposed to many airborne pollutants. In fact, one study of commuters in Los Angeles showed that 33% to 45% of all their exposure to pollution came during their commute.

Your commute may not be the gravest of health threats. But what are your options? You could space out for the 63 minutes and arrive at your destination as a commute zombie - or you can turn what could be considered wasted time into time well-spent. How can you make the most of that widening window of time spent on the road?

Road rave: 7 strategies for learning to enjoy your commute

If your commute is an unavoidable part of your day, why not make the best of it?

Enjoy the "me" time. Despite the bad reputation of commuting, a lot of us actually do enjoy our commute! For some, the commute is the only time alone all day. Consider it not lost time, but found time - to think, to read (if you're on public transit), to slip on your headphones and daydream (again, if you're not the one driving!), or listen to an audio book. It's also a good time to transition between work and home so you don't take your stress through the front door with you.

Set a stress-free soundtrack. What you listen to on your commute matters. Turns out, you don't just listen to music, you internalize it. Research has shown that when you listen to music you enjoy, your blood vessels may dilate - which may be good for your heart and for reducing stress. Tuning into music that makes you feel anxious can do just the opposite, causing constriction and a temporary boost in blood pressure. And when the right song comes on, belt it out: Singing may boost your immune system and help your body beat back the stress hormone cortisol.

Stay in the laughter lane. Did you know that the same heart-healthy, stress-soothing potential benefits of singing can be had for a laugh? Tune into your favourite funny radio deejays or pop in a comedy CD. Find the fun of the road and the humour in your fellow drivers: How many lip-synchers and nose-pickers can you spot? How long has it been since you played "Punch Buggy" or "I Spy"?

Take the pain out of the trip. Outfit your car for maximum comfort. Adjust your seat so the headrest aligns with the tops of your ears. The seat-base should support your thighs with a little space between the seat-edge and your knees. If you must make a phone call while driving, use a hands-free headset, keeping your hands where they should be for safety's sake and preventing any cramped-neck, one-handed phone cradling.

Stay off the hunger highway. For many folks, the after-work commute backs right into dinnertime. Use the glove box to stash healthy snacks - granola bars, nuts, or dried fruit - for munchy moments. Don't forget to stay hydrated, too. Tote a reusable water bottle and fill it before you leave in the morning and before you head back home in the afternoon.

Choose your own rush hour. If you can, plan your morning and afternoon getaways to avoid peak traffic times. Experiment; figure out which hour has the lowest level of "rush." Ask your boss about a "flextime" schedule, a sliding time frame for required work hours rather than a strict 9 to 5. Results of a commuter survey found that those folks with flexi-schedules felt less stressed on their way in to work.

Accept your spot in the flow of traffic. What stresses many of us about our commute is a feeling of powerlessness. We see the line of cars and think, "There's no way out! There's nothing I can do!" It may help to accept that, on some level, we brought this on ourselves. Whether we chose to live out in the suburbs so we could have a guest bathroom or we just decided to wake up too late, we have more control than we think. We can't make traffic disappear, but we can control how we feel and react in transit. Do you really want to flash a rude gesture at the guy who cut you off - or would it feel better to simply take a deep breath?

Road rage

So-called "road rage" runs the gamut from cranky commuters laying on the horn to full-on assault with a deadly weapon. And yet "road rage" is a relatively new term. Could the use of it be reckless in itself?

By some accounts, up to 90% of us will encounter road rage, either as a victim or as a witness, at one time or another in any given year. But law enforcement officials and experts in public safety emphasize the importance of making a distinction between aggressive driving and road rage.

What is the difference between road rage and aggressive driving?

There is no scientific definition for road rage, but many road safety experts agree that it is a criminal matter, not a threat to road safety. It occurs when a traffic incident escalates, resulting in a far more serious situation, such as if someone overreacts to an event and retaliates with violence. In some locations, road rage is illegal and linked to assault in the penal code. So, the term should be used to classify intentional acts of violence and assault that happen in the context of driving. In other words, assault is assault no matter where it takes place.

Aggressive driving, on the other hand, is a whole cluster of bad or inconsiderate driving behaviours. These are the more commonplace, but negligent, driving habits, including rude gestures, horn-honking, speeding, tailgating, failing to signal, driving on the shoulder to pass other cars, and unsafe lane changes.

Of course, any of these behaviours could also result in a situation where retaliation turns violent. But more often, no physical harm is done. Often it is a case of stressed, frustrated drivers taking a mistake too personally and reacting without thought to consequence. Could that be called "rage"? Perhaps, but calling it thus could fuel fears and undermine the seriousness of those confrontations that turn into assault.

What are the characteristics of a likely "road-rager"?

On a statistical level, men under 30 are most often the offenders and the victims of road rage. But anyone could be struck by road rage. The difference is that most people are able to suppress urges to react.

In psychological terms, road rage is sometimes associated with impulse control disorders, including compulsive gambling and stealing. Psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher contends that "high-anger" drivers tend to be more aggressive drivers. They're apt to be more vocal with insults and comments about other drivers, and more vengeful and quick to anger.

What can I do about my own road anger or frustrations?

  • Don't get into the driver's seat angry. Deffenbacher's "high-anger" drivers share a habit of taking their everyday aggressions into the car. Avoid this recipe for rage by planning ahead. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you're going. Steer clear of high-traffic routes, or pull off the road for a break when you feel angry or overwhelmed. Notice if certain conditions - rainy or snowy days, construction obstacles - seem to trigger your temper and dodge them when you can.
  • Pass on judging other drivers. Unless a fellow driver puts you in imminent danger, why would you expend any mental effort condemning their driving skills? Does it really matter if that guy forgot to signal his turn or that some lady slows down to get a closer look at a street sign? Give the benefit of the doubt; it's not always an inconsiderate driver, just a momentarily distracted one. And remember that we all make mistakes now and then.
  • Remember, it's usually nothing personal. People prone to road rage are often more sensitive to perceived attacks on their self-esteem. They may see bad driving as disrespectful or as a personal insult. But keep in mind that your fellow drivers have their own problems, their own worries, and their own agendas that have nothing to do with you.
  • Seek treatment. Be proactive about handling your anger and frustration, and you could save yourself a court-sanctioned trip to anger-management classes, a suspended licence, possible fines and jail time, or worse - injury to yourself and to others. Training in relaxation and coping skills have helped some people deal with anger and impulse control. You might also try a course in driving instruction to pick up some tips and tricks for dealing with tense moments on the road.
  • Set a good example for children. If you have children in the car with you, consider everything you do a possible example of how to act behind the wheel. This includes your negative reactions to other drivers and the comments and gestures you make. Wouldn't you prefer a future of alert yet level-headed drivers on the highways to one filled with irate cranks flipping each other the finger?

Bad commute? Map a new route!

If you just can't stand another day spent sitting behind the wheel, consider a few commuter alternatives.

Carpool your resources: 72% of Canadian car commuters still drive alone to and from work. Why not join the minority and swap your solitude for a shared experience? Ask around at work to find someone who lives near you or investigate community services that link up solo commuters. Carpool partners can take turns driving, but just be sure to settle insurance and reimbursement issues upfront. Follow ride-share etiquette: be punctual and polite.

Go public transit: This option has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, a public transit commute is an average of 41 minutes longer than a car commute. Plus, you're more likely to be exposed to coughs and sneezes of fellow passengers and the germ-ridden surfaces of buses and trains. On the other hand, take public transit and you're more than three times as likely as your car-bound counterparts to get 30 minutes of daily physical activity. You'll probably also take more steps and log more kilometres per day walking than those who drive to work.

Get on your bike: Perhaps thanks to the growing "green" movement, more and more people are riding two-wheelers to work. Cyclists exert both cardiovascular and muscular effort, so if you choose a bike commute you'll fit in a fun workout before your workday even begins! Just be sure to wear a helmet to prevent head injury. Remember that under the law, a bike is considered a vehicle and cyclists must abide by the rules of the road. Stay off sidewalks and use bike lanes if they're available in your area.

Walk it out: Should you be so lucky to live close enough to walk to work, why would you go any other way? Distance and poor weather may be a couple of reasons why so few people hoof it to their daily destinations. Too bad, since walking is such a simple, natural exercise and affords you a chance to appreciate your environment and to interact with your city or neighbourhood. If walking is an option for you, consider all the calories you could burn just getting to and from work!

Work from home: Telecommuting has become more common since the advent of the internet and wireless technologies. Imagine your commute equalling the distance between your bed and your home office! The disciplined telecommuter could make the most of the time saved by fitting in a quick home gym workout or a hike around the neighbourhood between emails, teleconferences, and webinars. While not an option for everyone, you could talk to your boss about the possibility of telecommuting 1 or 2 days a week to reduce your overall weekly traffic-or-transit time.