No one wants to be stuck in traffic, especially when research shows the detrimental effect it can have on our health. Long daily commutes can lead to a lack of physical activity, weight gain, increased alcohol consumption, and poor sleep quality. Recent studies even suggest that sitting in traffic can raise blood pressure due to the inhalation of air pollution. South Korea, known for its long average commuting times and high rates of depression among OECD nations, provides an interesting case study. However, limited research has been done on the health impacts of lengthy commutes in Asian populations, particularly in understanding how physical effects may contribute to poor mental health. This article explores a new study conducted in South Korea that examines the association between long commutes and depressive symptoms.

The study, conducted by public health researcher Dong-Wook Lee and colleagues at Inha University in Korea, analyzed data from the Fifth Korean Working Condition Survey. The survey included over 23,000 working-aged participants and measured mental health using the World Health Organization well-being index. The average daily commute time was found to be 47 minutes, equivalent to almost 4 hours of commuting per week for those who worked 5 days. Approximately one-quarter of the respondents reported experiencing depressive symptoms.

Though the study does not establish causation, it found that South Koreans with commutes lasting over an hour were 16% more likely to experience depressive symptoms compared to those with commutes under 30 minutes. The study also revealed gender-specific associations. For men, the link between long commutes and poor mental health was strongest among those who were unmarried, worked more than 52 hours per week, and had no children. Among women, long commuting times were most strongly associated with depressive symptoms among low-income workers, shift workers, and those with children.

The researchers propose that the lack of spare time due to long commutes could hinder stress relief and the combatting of physical fatigue through activities like sleep and hobbies. However, it should be noted that the analysis controlled for various factors such as age, work hours, income, occupation, and shift work which could potentially impact mental health. Nevertheless, this study was unable to account for individual risk factors for depressive symptoms such as family history. Additionally, the survey did not specify the modes of transport used by commuting participants.

A 2018 study of nearly 4,500 UK survey participants suggested that switching from driving to active modes of transport such as cycling or walking can enhance mental health among commuters. While it is important to acknowledge the potential positive aspects of longer commutes, such as the opportunity to disconnect from work, it is essential to consider the impact on mental well-being. Furthermore, it is worth noting that this Korean survey predates the pandemic, which has significantly changed our work arrangements. Although not everyone can work from home, the shift to remote work has occurred more rapidly among white-collar and high-income workers. The researchers highlight the need for improved transportation and reduced travel time to create a healthier commuting environment.

The study conducted in South Korea sheds light on the association between long commutes and depressive symptoms. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the impact of physical factors on mental health. Future research should explore solutions to mitigate these detrimental effects, such as promoting active modes of transportation and improving commuting infrastructure. While long commutes may still be an unavoidable reality for many individuals, efforts should be made to minimize the negative consequences on mental well-being.

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