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Your commute: Breaking back, bank and spirit

Wednesday - 8/7/2013, 6:01am  ET

Outer Loop i495 beltway delay (WTOP/Kristi King)
Traffic jams along the Capital Beltway may cost more than time and money. (WTOP/Kristi King)

WASHINGTON - While a bigger, more affordable house outside the city is appealing, long commutes to work are costly to body and mind -- not just the bank.

And in the dog days of summer, when gas prices are at their highest for the year, commuters become hyper-aware of what they spend and how commutes affect overall quality of life.

The average American's commute is about 25 minutes. But more than 2 million Americans have an unusually long commute of more than an hour each way every day, says Matt Heimer, editor of the Encore Blog at Marketwatch.com.

"When you're commuting for that long, the problems go beyond just money. It's really a situation where the amount of time you're spending behind the wheel is costing you in other elements of your life, too. It's hazardous to your health, and I think hazardous to your well-being, potentially," Heimer tells WTOP.

A 2010 Gallup survey of more than 173,500 working adults found that one in three who commuted for more than 90 minutes said they had neck or back pain in the previous year. Only about one person out of four with a commute of 10 minutes or less had similar issues.

Heimer does say other issues can cause back problems, too, but being cramped in a car in a tense, defensive driving position isn't the best for the spine. On top of that, being overweight is also associated with too much time spent in the driver's seat.

"Studies have shown there seems to be sort of a magic distance, somewhere in the 16- to 20-mile range seems to be the tipping point. People who have commutes of that length or longer are much more likely to be obese, and they're much less likely to get the recommended amount of weekly exercise," says Heimer.

But physical health isn't the only concern. Long commutes can be hard on the family unit as well.

"Unfortunately it seems that for many families the time that you lose to a long commute can counteract the benefits of having that nicer, bigger house that's further from the center of town," says Heimer.

"There have been studies, most notably one in Sweden that showed that a longer commute could increase your risk of divorce by as much as 40 percent."

Some of that stress comes when one family member is loaded up with chores around the house and taking care of children because the other parent spends so much time commuting.

Commuting also takes a toll on the environment, especially when cars idle around busy metro thoroughfares like the Capital Beltway. According to Heimer, about 20 percent of all greenhouse gases are estimated to come from personal transportation -- and a high percentage of car commuters aren't carpooling.

"That has a cost, you know, not only to people's health in the immediate area from exhaust and things like that, but it's pretty much a well-established fact now that there's also a greenhouse gas factor that may be contributing to climate change," says Heimer.

WTOP's David Burd and Dimitri Sotis contributed to this report.

Follow @DavidBurdWTOP, @DSotisWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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