6 Reasons Why It’s Time to Ditch Your Car

By Markham Heid

Your body is made to move—not to sit still for hours at a time. Research shows long bouts of motionless chair-time—like when you go for a long drive—are associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancer, type-2 diabetes and mortality. No big deal.

The remedy for this is pretty obvious: stop from time to time—ideally at least once an hour—to stretch your legs and move your body, says Tim Church, MD, PhD, a professor at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Short of a walking break, just fidgeting in your seat—anything to shift your body position—could prevent long bouts of seat-time from harming your health, shows research on “non-exercise” movements from the Mayo Clinic.

Some car companies have taken note of all this research, and are implementing health-focused technologies to protect you from the perils of long, sedentary drives. One example: Mercedes-Benz is rolling out seats in their new S-Class models featuring “energizing seat kinetics” that subtly shift your sitting position and posture as you drive.
Too much idle sitting isn’t the only health risk associated with driving. Here are five more, and ways to dodge them. And hey, maybe it’s time to invest in biking to work.

An MIT analysis concluded that driving in heavy city traffic is as stressful as skydiving. (That explains why you feel like punching through a wall when you finally break through traffic and make it to work in the morning.) When you consider all the health risks linked to stress, that traffic-triggered road rage becomes a major concern. To beat it, try mindfulness meditation—a practice that involves blocking out negative thought patterns and focusing on the information you’re receiving from your senses. Research suggests mindfulness is a great stress-beater, and one you can practice while you’re in the car.

The subtle vibrations your spine endures while driving is bad for your back, especially if you don’t inflate the lumbar support in your chair to ensure the curve of your spine is properly supported. Research suggest the more you drive, the greater your risk for back pain.

Experts also say the combination of twisting and sitting down hard—the thing you do every time you get into a car—can increase your risk for back injuries, especially if you go straight from a long car ride to playing sports or exercising. Try to sit down gently when you climb into a car; using the overhead hand grip to ease your way in is a good idea. Taking a 5-minute walk after you reach your destination can also help loosen your back and prevent exercise-related injuries.

Vehicle congestion is a major source of “ambient air pollution,” according to research from the University of Michigan. That UM study and others have found people who live near busy roadways suffer from higher mortality rates, and that drivers who sit in traffic with their windows open are exposing themselves to more of the toxic exhaust smog.

To avoid a lot of those pollutants, keep your windows closed when sitting in heavy traffic. Assuming you regularly change your car’s air filter, it will do a decent job of catching pollutants before they enter your vehicle’s cabin. Some car companies—Buick is one—are even adding ionizing purifiers that actively scrub air of harmful allergens and contaminants.

People who commute more than 10 miles to work are 23 percent more likely to have elevated blood sugar—a major risk factor for diabetes, per a study from the Washington University School of Medicine. Get some exercise. Running or cycling can knock down your blood sugar levels by up to 42 percent, research shows. Physical activity could counteract the ill effects of a long commute.

That same Wash U. study linked commutes longer than 10 miles with a greater risk for depression. To ward off the blues, spend time with friends. A pile of research suggests “social connectedness”—that is, time spent with buddies—is one of the best ways to boost your mood and outlook.