It’s clear that what we eat, whether we smoke, and how much exercise we get can affect our health. But what about where we live or how much traffic is nearby? These things can affect how active you are and your risk for disease. And it’s possible many of us might not realize it.
Your Morning Commute
For most people, getting to and from work is the greatest single time we spend travelling. And the average commute is roughly 25 minutes each way. Not surprisingly, most people do this by car. But this can be taking a toll on one’s physical and mental well-being.
Long commutes are associated with increased chances for obesity and high blood pressure. Whereas, public transit or active transport (walking, cycling) are associated with better health. Part of this may be due to the time spent sitting in a car. And it’s clear, a lot of sitting isn’t good for your health. But people who commute by car also get less exercise, less sleep and eat more convenience foods. This may be because commuting takes time away from these other things. It can also be the result of long commuters reporting being less happy, more stressed and more likely to be depressed, which can make adhering to a healthy lifestyle more of a challenge.
If you’re able to, switching out use of the car with public transit or active transport can be good for your health. If that’s not possible, try working from home some days. Or cutting down your commute time by moving closer. Even carpooling can help. People who commuted with others rated greater enjoyment than commuting alone, which may lead to having more energy throughout the day.
Where You Live
How your neighbourhood is designed can have a direct effect on your health. The so-called built environment, human-made aspects of the environment, affects one’s health by influencing behaviours. For example, residents walk more in communities with sidewalks. Likewise, communities with a mix of retail, commercial and residential areas lead to more walking. Living in these areas has also been associated with a lower risk for obesity and diabetes. And having more greenspace, such as parks and trees, in your community is associated with better mental well-being.
Your neighbourhood can also influence your nutrition. If you live in an area with more fast-food restaurants, you’re more likely to consume fast food, which can increase your changes of having obesity. Conversely, having more grocery stores and supermarkets nearby may be associated with healthier eating.
However, many of us choose where we live based on a desire for a certain lifestyle. The most common reasons for deciding where to live include proximity to family and workplace, the cost and the type of housing. Factors such as how your neighbourhood will affect your activity and nutrition aren’t usually considered. But the Walk Score is an easy way to see how your neighbourhood measures up. Plus you can also use it to look up other neighbourhoods in case you plan to move.
Who You Spend Time With
Throughout life, we’re constantly influenced by the people around us. Who you spend your time with plays a role in your behaviours. And as a result your health. For example, people who exercise often spend time with other exercisers. Likewise with smokers. And those who are trying to quit, will often spend less time with their smoking friends.
Researchers have also reported obesity may be spread through one’s social networks. People with friends who gained weight had a higher chance of being obese themselves. In addition, a study following US military personnel found that being located in an area with a higher rate of obesity resulted in an increase in body weight. This may be due to sharing common lifestyle interests and behaviours. Or sharing the same environment that may promote an unhealthy lifestyle.
But our social networks can also be a source of good for our health. People with higher social support have proven to be more resilient. They are less likely to report anxiety and poor quality sleep, and are more likely to be healthy. In addition, people with larger social networks were more likely to exercise. And those people who knew others who were active are even more likely to exercise. So if you’re interested in making a change in your lifestyle, seek out people who are doing that behaviour. At the same time, you may also find yourself being a role model for others.
What You Do for a Living
We spend nearly half of our waking hours at work, so it’s not surprising it can affect our health. For many, we see the connection between our job and our mental well-being. An enjoyable job can enhance one’s happiness, while one that isn’t, may lead to increased stress.
Your job can also influence your physical health. Since the 1960s, we’ve known jobs that are physically active can decrease one’s chances of getting heart disease. However, over the decades, most jobs have become sedentary. As this happened, subsequent studies began to indicate the exact opposite. And one study even reported strenuous activity at work may actually increase your risk for early death.
However, other studies have found work activity to be associated with less chances of getting cancer, heart disease and early death. And some of the more recent studies showing the benefits of activity on health, have included people with extremely high levels of work activity. If you’re not one of those people who have an active job, or you work from home, you may need to seek out opportunities to be active. This can be done by setting yourself reminders to get up and move around, and creating opportunities to be active during work day.
How Close You Live to a Busy Street
Major roads and highways are a key part of urban life. They allow us to get from one point to another. And many people live in close proximity to major roads, whether by choice or necessity. Combustion vehicles release pollutants such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and increase ground-level ozone. And trucks routes may be more problematic as diesel-powered trucks emit more of these pollutants.
It’s believed air pollutants from traffic can have an adverse affect on the heart and lung. People living closer to major roads and highways are more likely to have heart disease and experience early death. Living near major roads may also increase risk for asthma and COPD. And recently, a study indicated an association with dementia. However, moving further away can lower one’s risk.
And it’s not just the air pollution that may be problematic. Research suggests traffic noise is associated with metabolic syndrome, heart disease and depression. The connection between noise pollution and physical health is believed to be due to the noise increasing one’s stress and sleep disturbances. However, the air and noise pollution effects begin to diminish at 100-150 metres from the roads and may be non-existent at >250 m away.
While it may not be feasible to move or switch your job, knowing how these factors affect your health can help you make subtle changes that can improve your health.
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