How Healthy Is Your Commute?

Get to work in one healthy, happy piece with our pointers on germs and more.

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They're gripping the pole beside you on the subway and sitting in the next seat on the train. No, these co-passengers aren't of the human variety, they're microbes — bacteria and viruses looking to make your body their new home. Kind of curbs your commute enthusiasm, doesn't it? Get to work in one healthy, happy piece with our pointers on germs and more.

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The Risk: Grabbing the Pole on a Bus or Subway

You're skeeved out because who knows how many hands have held that thing. But here's some reassurance: When researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College swabbed inside New York City subway cars, they found hundreds of species of bacteria — most of which are totally harmless. (Some were linked to food like pizza!) Other researchers tested public transit surfaces around the country and concluded that they're not as dirty as you'd expect.

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However, there were some unwelcome players in the mix. Among them, gram-positive cocci (a cause of skin infections and pneumonia) and bacillus (linked to ear and eye infections). Other things potentially lingering include strep throat bacteria and norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Norovirus can sit on surfaces for up to two weeks. Even worse, it takes only a small amount, less than 100 particles, to make you sick — and a person with the virus can expel billions.

Basically, anything with a smooth surface — stainless steel, the buttons and touchscreen on a ticket machine, the bathroom sink on a train — makes it easier for you to pick up germs, says Gerba. Less worrisome surfaces: fabric seats in a taxi or rideshare car.

Your Defense: Don't touch your face en route, and wash your hands as soon as you get where you're going, says Elizabeth Scott, codirector of the Center for Hygiene and Health at Simmons College. Seriously, head to the sink before you turn on your computer or anything else. Suds those paws for 20 seconds, and dry them thoroughly. In a pinch, use a 60 percent alcohol–based hand sanitizer.

The Risk: Just Sitting There

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If your commute consists of jumping in your car and staying put for the next hour, you could be hurting your health. Folks who commute by train or bus generally walk more and have lower BMIs and less body fat compared with drivers, per research in the Lancet. And travelers with more active commutes were 27 percent and 34 percent less likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes, respectively, says preliminary Japanese research.

Your Defense: Overall, the more walking or biking you do as part of your commute, the bigger the wellness boost. If possible, walk or ride your bike to the station rather than driving. Or get off one or two stops before your destination and stroll briskly the rest of the way. Driving is more challenging. If you're a car commuter, you can't do calisthenics while cruising down the highway, so you should aim to counteract your sedentary ride by being more active throughout the day. Park a few blocks or more from the office, or hoof it to lunch or on a coffee run.

The Risk: Eating on the Go

Picture it: You've just settled into your seat on the bus when your stomach starts to grumble, so you reach for the package of almonds in your bag and pop a few in your mouth. But wait! Didn't you grab the bus railing when you got on — the one that many, many other people touched? If so, those almonds came with a side of whatever viruses or bacteria hitched a ride on their hands. You've potentially just caught a cold.

Your Defense: Hold off the snack attack until you're at your destination. If you absolutely need to eat, at least rub on hand sanitizer before diving in, advises Gerba.

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The Risk: Backaches

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If nagging pain is as much a part of your morning trek as coffee and a podcast, something is off — but you're not alone. One-third of people who commute for more than 90 minutes a day struggle with aches, reports a Gallup poll, and even a shorter ride can hurt. Blame your hunched-over posture while scrolling through your phone that stresses the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and low back, plus the strain of schlepping heavy bags, says Audrey Abner, clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in New York.

Your Defense: Sitting upright — head neutral, shoulders back, spine straight — will help. (If you drive, put a small lumbar support pillow behind your lower back.) Also, try this stretch midride: Bring your ear to one shoulder and use your hand to pull your head down gently. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times, then go to the other side.

The Risk: Your Grubby Phone

Here's how to turn an innocent smartphone into a germ factory: You touch a surface and pick up bugs; then you grab your phone to check your email and contaminate it, then pass it to your friend to show her a cute penguin video. It's essentially a chain of exposure, says Gerba.

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Your Defense: The only surefire way to protect your phone from germs is to keep it stashed away on the go. Since that's not going to happen, rub on hand sanitizer before whipping out your phone, and wash your hands after you get to your destination. There are no hacks here: Hand washing is the number one way to protect yourself, germ experts say.

The Risk: Breathing in a Flu Virus

That glare you shot the guy on the train who's achooing without covering his mouth? Totally justified. When a sick person sneezes or coughs, virus particles launch into the air, ready for you to breathe in, says John Lednicky, Ph.D., a microbiology professor who studies airborne viruses at the University of Florida. In fact, research shows that one sneeze can contaminate an entire room with the flu virus for hours. (We're begging: Sneeze into your elbow!) "It's very hard to protect yourself against things that other people breathe out," says Lednicky. But, he adds, if you're a regular commuter, you may build up resistance to some sicknesses. That's one benefit to being smushed like a sardine day after day.

Your Defense: To reduce exposure, sit two or more seats away from someone who's obviously sick, says Gerba. During a car ride, roll down the windows so airflow ferries some viruses out.

The Risk: Skipping a Seat Belt

In many states, it's legal to hop in the back seat of a cab and ride sans seat belt. But they're called lifesavers for a reason. In more than half of fatal car accidents, riders weren't wearing one, according to the CDC.

Your Defense: C'mon, tell the truth: Do you always use the seat belt in the back seat of a taxi or rideshare car? If not, imagine your face crashing into the back of the driver's headrest. Click! Was that you we heard buckling in?

The Risk: Pull-Your-Hair-Out Stress

Missed trains, delays, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and crowding...they all add up to gritted teeth and frustration. Over the long run, says research, the stress, helplessness, and lack of time to take care of yourself can cause sleep problems, depression, and screwing up on the job. Moreover, stress hormones like cortisol can take a physical toll, bumping up your blood pressure and messing with your immune system, among other things.

Your Defense: Identify what gets under your skin during your commute, and change the circumstances. Yeah, yeah, easier said than done, especially if you're a creature of habit. "Even when your current commute is tough, the fear of the unknown may stop you from making a switch," says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect. To get over the hump, just try making a change. It's a win-win either way: You might find a new route, or that you love traveling at a different time, or you'll realize you didn't have it so bad all along. And never doubt the power of a good attitude. Consider your commute your personal time, and listen to a podcast or audiobook, or zone out with music you love. "You'll notice less that you're stuck in traffic when you're focused on something else," says Lombardo.

Don't Be Shy — Say Hi!

People who chatted up a fellow passenger felt more positive about their commute than those who kept mum, per one 2014 study. It all comes down to our natural craving for social interaction. So go ahead, say good morning to the driver, talk about the weather with the guy next to you, or compliment that woman's shoes. You'll satisfy your basic human need for connection.

This story originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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