• Image Credit: Oran Viriyincy, Flickr

We hate to admit it, but of all the places you can get caught sitting for long periods of time--the couch, a plane or behind a computer--the car is probably the unhealthiest.

Commuters in crammed and crowded metropolitan areas like New York, Washington DC, Boston and Los Angeles with one-way commute times to the office of up to two hours know only too well that long commutes can take their toll on health and well being. But a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that people who live as little as 15 miles from their job also face serious health consequences.

According to the study, which focused on 4,200 commuters in two Texas cities--Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin--commuters with more than 15 miles each way to slog between home and work every day are experiencing higher than normal incidents of high-blood pressure, obesity and depression. Those ill effects, say the experts who conducted the study, are markers for higher incidence of diabetes and heart disease.

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If you endure long commutes, "you are on your way to heart disease," Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told WebMd.com. "[When] you have an elevated blood pressure, an elevated BMI (body-mass-index), an elevated waist circumference; you're on your way to diabetes and high cholesterol," says Steinbaum. "This is a person that I say, 'Change your life now so you don't get sick later,'" Steinbaum says.

How was the study conducted? Everyone in the study took a treadmill test to measure how long and vigorously they could exercise. And researchers checked a slew of indicators for heart disease and diabetes. Those included elevated blood sugar levels, cholesterol, total fat, belly fat, and BMI -- a measure of weight in relation to height. People in the study were also asked how much and how intensely they exercised each week.

According to the researchers, the number of workers driving to work by private car more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, increasing from more than 41 million to nearly 113 million. The average distance traveled to work also has grown in recent years, from nearly nine miles in 1983 to more than 12 miles in 2001, the researchers said. That may not sound like much, but those are averages. Commuters in many cities surpass those averages by a lot.

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And miles aren't the key metric; time is. A 30-mile commute in Washington DC, Atlanta or New York can easily take 90 minutes to two hours during rush hour.

How does commuting specifically hurt your health? The biggest issue is that commuters who spend so much time in their cars or on mass transit have less time for exercise, and tend to get less sleep.

Long commutes also lead to bad eating habits, such as eating fast food in their cars. Of all the places we sit each day -- in front of a computer, on the couch, in bed -- a car may be one of the most dangerous for health.

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"I can speak from personal experience that commuting, especially long commuting, plays havoc on one's health," says AOL Editor-in-Chief David Kiley. " I worked in New York City and lived in New Jersey for many years and my weight rose terribly as I spent up to two hours each way getting to and from work." Adds Kiley, "Today my commute in Michigan is about 45 minutes, and I work from home one to two days a week to cut it down even more, and I am much healthier, happier and more productive."

The worst city in America for traffic and commuting is Los Angeles, according to Weather.com, followed by Washington, Atlanta, Houston and San Francisco.

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If you can't move closer to your job, then there are things to do to offset the ill effects of long commutes that are relatively easy to do:

-Walk stairs instead of taking the elevators: If you work in a building that allows for stair climbing, then get some exercise and brine calories that way during the day. If your building objects, then try and organize tenants and employees--such a campaign will energize people to get out of their chairs and move.

-If you are prone to eating at your desk, or hitting the cafeteria during lunch, turn the lunchhour into an opportunity to walk, and even power walk, with a healthy smoothie in your hand. Link up with co-workers who feel the same way and want to get off their butts.

-If your long car commute leads you to hit fast-food places on your way to and home from work, do some planning to avoid the high-calorie pitfalls. Coffee and a banana in the car beats stopping for the McDonald's Breakfast Value Meal.

-Lobby your employer for home work time so that you cut down your commuting, but use the time to exercise.

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