Waking up early on a Monday morning is bad enough. Add to that the dread of a lengthy commute, and your positive weekend attitude may plummet.
Such sentiments may be growing as more people find themselves traveling a greater distance to get to work. A recent study by New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management found that between 2009 and 2010, the number of "super commuters," or those working in a combined metropolitan area but living outside its boundaries, increased in eight of the 10 cities studied: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, and Philadelphia.
Along with sparking a cranky attitude, commuting can take a physical toll. A Washington University in St. Louis study found that commuters with a schedule heavy on distance and light on exercise can suffer from high cholesterol and obesity. Considering those negative factors, it's easy to let pessimism creep in as you gear up for miles and miles on the road.
Courtesy of health experts, here are some strategies to help make your daily voyage not only bearable, but also productive.
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Accept the reality. Before you can enjoy your commute, you must first be at peace with it. "There's nothing kind of inherently stressful about being seated … what makes it difficult is that we don't want to be there," says Jonathan S. Kaplan, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author of the book Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence, and Purpose in the Middle of It All.
A negative attitude will only further the resentment, he adds. "The more you don't want to be there, the worse it will be," Kaplan says. "The first step is recognizing that the commute is part of your life, whether you like it or not."
Productivity over aimlessness. Commuters might consider using time on the road to feed their intellectual tastes, which can buck the feeling that travel time is useless time. "Having the sense that you've done something productive, [the] time has high payoff," says Alan Pisarski, author of the Commuting in America series and a travel behavioral analyst.
Kaplan suggests making the subway or bus a traveling lecture hall by listening to a free podcast from iTunes U, which offers courses from elite colleges like Stanford and Harvard. If you're riding solo in the car, pop in an audiobook—perhaps a literary favorite or one that will teach you a new language.
Embrace your fellow commuters. A coarse gesture from another driver or a hurried shove from a public-transit passenger may only amplify whatever anxiety you're already feeling on your commute. But don't let the actions of a few sour your feelings toward the many. Other commuters can actually serve as an asset in terms of improving your attitude.
"Whether you are stuck in traffic or on a crowded subway train, look at the people around, extend them a blessing," suggests Kaplan. You don't have to do this verbally, he explains, but doing so mentally "transform[s] the commute—it becomes a real feel-good experience."
Smartphone apps are helping foster more interactive ties among commuters. A recent study by the New Cities Foundation found that commuters, drivers, and public-transit riders who used crowd-sourced smartphone apps to relay data about and comment on traffic were less stressed and more charitable about sharing information than those who didn't use such apps. Waze, an app used in the study, lets drivers share real-time traffic and road information. Meanwhile, those relying on public transportation can download Roadify, which not only sends updates from others, but also provides transit schedules and service alerts.
Shake it off at work. Whether you get to work by bus or car, a less-than-ideal commute can have a negative and lingering affect on your work performance. "The more stressful your commute, the less efficient and productive you're going to be," says Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University.
For mental stress, having some alone time or voicing frustrations to others may be the right prescription for getting your workday back on the right track. "I think sitting down and having a cup of coffee and letting yourself decompress [can help]," Pisarski says, adding, "But being able to talk about it maybe helps people a little bit."
If your commute is leading to physical health issues, working out in the company gym may be the right course of action. "If your work site has a gym, then go on the treadmill for 20 minutes … and that will diffuse the stress," says Williams.