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Commutes Lead to Bad Habits? continued...

But researchers say that of all the places we sit each day -- in front of a computer, on the couch, in bed -- a car may be one of the most dangerous for health.

"The car is tough because there's really no easy way to interrupt it," says Richard Krasuski, MD, director of adult congenital heart disease services and a staff cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. If you're sitting at a desk, he says, you can at least get up and stretch once in a while. "In a car, you're really confined to that space, you're not really moving around very much," says Krasuski, who was not involved in the research.

Previous studies have shown that traffic congestion, which often factors into commuting, is stressful. Stress, with its deluge of fight-or-flight hormones that can raise heart rate and blood pressure, is known to increase the risk for a lot of health problems, including heart attacks and strokes.

According to Thomas J. Christian, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in economics at Brown University, people who spend a lot of time in the car are also more likely to eat in the car and to make "non-grocery food purchases," meaning they're more likely to eat out. Often, that food comes from a drive-through or gas station.

"We don't know the exact mechanisms at play here," says Hoehner. "It could be something related to diet. It could be that they travel longer and they're more likely to pick up fast food. It could have to do with sleep. They have less discretionary time, so maybe they're getting less sleep. And sleep is associated with all these variables, like weight and blood pressure."

Getting Back on Track

In the end, says Steinbaum, having a lengthy commute is probably "a perfect storm" of things that are bad for the body.

"What I say to people is: 'You cannot control certain things. You have a job. We all have to commute. This is life. Let's not get down on life,'" she says.

"But what you do on the outside time, what you do for yourself, is so critical," Steinbaum tells WebMD.

She says people who have long commutes need to do everything they can at work and at home to try to offset that sedentary time.

"Forget the elevator. Take the stairs. Put a pedometer on. Do everything in your power to eat well and exercise," she says.

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