The return to commuting may actually be a good thing for your brain

August 13, 2021, 11:30 AM UTC

The Delta variant has caused some companies to delay their return to the office, but as other workplaces across the country cautiously reopen their doors, many employees who worked from home during the pandemic are signing out of Zoom and getting reacquainted with an old companion: the daily commute. 

For some, the journey to and from work may reintroduce much-needed physical and mental space between their personal and professional lives. But for others, it means a return to countless hours spent in transit—and the fatigue and stress that comes with it. 

Regardless of your feelings about the daily commute, research suggests there are a number of ways to get the most out of it, physically and mentally. And now that remote work is ending for many people, it’s the ideal time to rethink and replace old commuting habits.

“What I think is wonderful about people returning to the commute is what researchers call the ‘fresh start’ effect,” said Nina Bartmann, senior behavioral researcher at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight. The fresh start effect refers to the phenomenon in which people feel more motivated to pursue goals because of a temporal landmark, like a new year. As people return to the office for the first time in over a year, Bartmann said, “it’s the ideal time to consider new change.”

Much has already changed for American commuters. Those who drove to work spent an average of about 54 hours a year stuck in traffic before the pandemic, according to a 2019 report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The pandemic decreased that number to 27 hours.

“Commuters got a lot of time back,” said Bartmann. (They also saved on transportation costs, like gas, parking, and train tickets.) But they missed out on one potential benefit of traveling to and from work, which she said lets us “mentally separate what you’re leaving behind, and mentally prepare for what’s about to happen.” Some people used the extra time they would have spent commuting to exercise, care for children, or bake loaves and loaves of bread. Others just worked longer hours.

The commute is one way to set boundaries between work and personal life. Being able to set those boundaries was associated with an increased ability to buffer stress in a recent study of teachers who were constantly connected to work through technology. Relatedly, researchers from the Netherlands recently showed that blurred work/life boundaries are linked to emotional exhaustion related to work, which in turn prevents people from leading a healthy lifestyle (defined as taking time to sleep, eat, exercise, and relax). The end result? Reduced happiness. 

But not all commutes are made equal, and some take a heavier health toll than others. How and where one travels—and the choices employers give workers in those decisions—makes a difference.

“We have done some studies that showed that people who commute by bike regularly have better mental well-being compared to those that did not,” said Wilma Zijlema, an environmental epidemiologist at ISGlobal Barcelona Institute for Global Health who has researched the health impacts of traffic and pollution, in an email. 

Traveling by car appears to be the most mentally taxing. A recent U.K. study on the health effects of commuting modes showed that switching from driving to “active travel”—walking or cycling—is linked to an increase in physical and mental health, and vice versa for those who switch to driving. A 2018 U.K. study similarly suggested that shifting toward active commuting helps stave off or mitigate depressive symptoms in working adults. A 2013 study from Australia linking weight gain and commuting by car also found that the workers most likely to experience mental health declines related to commuting were those who had the least control over aspects of their job, including work hours, location, and tasks.

Zijlema is the lead author of a 2018 study showing that people who commuted through natural environments reported better mental health, especially when they biked or walked instead of driving or taking public transport. (Think of forest bathing, but en route to the office.) Active commuting through nature not only protects commuters from air and noise pollution but also keeps more cars off the road. The effects of lockdown on air pollution, added Zijlema, “showed us how nice and clean the world could be if we would try harder.” 

Of course, many workers don’t have much of a choice when it comes to their commute. Still, they may have more control over the way they view it.

“I don’t believe it’s the form of commute as such that matters” with regards to mental health impacts, said Bartmann. “What does the commute mean to you, and what do you make of it?” 

Rather than think of it as a necessary hurdle, consider viewing the commute as precious “me time”: for catching up on the news, listening to a favorite podcast, calling up a friend, or planning what to do at work or at home. And if this moment in time signals the end of your work-from-home phase, you can take advantage of the fresh start effect by trying something new with your commute, whether it’s incorporating physical activity into your routine and finding a nature-adjacent route, like Zijlema proposed, or finally signing up for that carpool to save money and reduce emissions, as Bartmann suggested.

People whose return to commuting has been postponed because of the Delta variant can still set boundaries while working from home. Putting away laptops and notebooks at the end of the workday helps enforce the idea that office hours are over, says Bartmann, much like dressing up in professional clothing in the morning promotes a work-focused mindset.

Return-to-work circumstances differ for everyone, but all workers will eventually have their “fresh start” moment when it comes to commuting. These moments “mark a new time,” says Bartmann. “There is a lot of momentum and motivation to become a better you.”

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