North Americans aren't especially healthy. The machines that have helped our economy grow and allowed us to do things our grandparents never imagined -- those same machines have diminished our need for physical exertion and, as a result, our well-being.
Of all those newfangled devices and gadgets -- the television, the laptop, the smartphone, the Snuggie -- none deserves as much praise or blame as the automobile.
On the "praise" side, the benefits of motor vehicles are easy to see. They've allowed us to travel far and wide in search of better jobs and better lives. They've allowed us to haul stuff around, so we can enjoy tomatoes, strawberries, and Tootsie Rolls all year long. Perhaps most importantly, they bring pizza right to our door.
But as the New York Times reports, there are some trade offs. The newspaper recently published an overview of the many health problems that cars have delivered. Chief among them:
• High blood pressure: A study in Texas found a direct correlation between the length of someone's commute and her blood pressure. Specifically, the farther workers have to travel, the higher their blood pressure. Generally speaking, researchers found that the danger point was a commute of 10 miles, one-way. A Swedish study conducted by Erika Sandow at Umea University uncovered similar results, though the cutoff point was slightly higher, at 15 miles.
• High blood sugar and cholesterol: The Texas study revealed that folks who commute more than 10 miles one way had significantly higher levels of blood sugar and cholesterol than their kin with easier commutes. That's a recipe for disaster -- and diabetes.
• Depression and anxiety: Texas researchers also discovered that long commutes have a negative influence on an individual's mood. Depression and anxiety not only diminish quality of life, but can also dramatically shorten lifespans.
• Exhaustion and sleep deprivation: A different Swedish study carried out by Erik Hansson of Lund University revealed that the farther a worker lives from her place of employment, the greater chance she has of suffering from exhaustion, lack of sleep, and sickness. A U.S. study of commuters on the Long Island Rail Road yielded similar results. (Which somehow seems worse: it's not the driving that's the problem, it's the travel.)
• Obesity: Every study listed here -- and many that aren't -- found that longer commutes mean larger waistlines. That's not surprising, since we've heard the same thing about sedentary desk jobs for ages. And as with desk jobs, chances are good that much of the damage can't be undone.
None of these physical ailments add up to long, healthy lives. Nor do these studies broach the unpleasant topic of what long commutes do to the environment.
That said, the future isn't entirely hopeless. Americans are driving less, fewer teens are getting licensed, and just as we've seen elsewhere in the world, Americans are moving to cities where walking to work is more frequently an option.
Are such healthy trends moving quickly enough to counteract the problems brought on by commuting? We'll keep you posted.