This is an open letter to everyone everywhere, especially people who live in small communities such as mine:
If you drive to work, you are missing out. If someone offered you an opportunity to improve your health, enhance your happiness and creativity, boost your self-esteem and even make you richer, what would you say? Many might think it would be an offer that was too good to be true — a scam; what’s the catch? There is no catch; I want to share how commuting to work on foot or by bicycle can do all these things. It can be a bit addicting, but this addiction is a good thing.
First the obvious: a self-propelled commute is exercise, and regular exercise has tremendous benefits for health. Physicians typically recommend exercise in the range of 30 minutes five days per week because research supports the notion that this amount of exercise reduces the chance of developing chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, as well as many cancers, for example). For many people who live in small communities, work is within the range of a 30-minute walk or bicycle ride.
Another clear benefit of walking or biking to work has to do with money; everything costs much less than driving. Compare a new pair of shoes or a bicycle with the cost of maintaining a car and paying for fuel, and there is no contest. Cars as a means of getting to and from work in America have become an expensive habit, and sometimes a good way to break a habit is to realize how expensive it is.
The hidden gems with a non-motorized commute, however, have to do with creativity, self-esteem and happiness. While exercise in itself has been shown to boost these qualities, I believe exercising while going to and from work increases these traits much more.
Whether it is preparing for a busy day, solving a problem, or finding solutions to conflicts, the time on a bike or walking allows the brain to wander, to consider out-of-the-box solutions, to be creative. Personally, some of my most creative thoughts occur before or after work while I am pedaling away. It is the exercise combined with the time of day combined with being disconnected from computers and smart phones. Just as some of the best vacations are when one is in a remote location and “unplugged,” some of the best parts of the day are when one is alone, in that transition between work and home. It may sound crazy, but it is a mini mind-and-body vacation — a time to figure things out.
But, one might say, “Exercise is hard, I’m tired after work, it’s windy and no matter which direction I am going, it’s up hill!” There is no argument from me — I agree entirely. However, in these sentiments lies exactly the reward, and why I have come to enjoy my commute more and more over time. There have been many times when I have walked out the clinic door, tired from a busy day, and thought about getting a ride home. And there have been times, half way home, when I have wondered where my strength had gone. By mustering the strength, though, I almost always get on my bike, and I always get home just fine. I have gradually realized what this has done for me. My body and brain have become stronger and stronger, and I have faith in my ability to succeed. Self-esteem, inner confidence, resilience, whatever you want to call it — I’ve got more of it now, and my commute has helped me get it.
Meanwhile, I have come realize over time that getting to work on bike or foot has made me a happier person. We all want to be happy, and it is well known through research that exercise improves mood and decreases the chances of becoming depressed. This mood-enhancing effect of exercise occurs right after an exercise session, as well as over the long term with regular exercise. In other words, biking or walking to work is a handy tool to improve the chances of having a good day at work. And what is really remarkable is if one adds up all those good days at work, the result is an improved chance of being happy at work in general. Everyone spends a lot of time — most of our adult life, actually — at work, why not improve the odds that we will be happy during that time, that we will like our job? I think this is in a sense an important foundation of job satisfaction.
It takes longer to get to work in the morning, and there are errands and tasks to complete that require a car … the list goes on and on. Changing or creating new habits is difficult, and it is common at first to see numerous seemingly insurmountable barriers. In reality though, there are creative solutions to almost every obstacle, and meanwhile, it is rewarding in itself to plan for and achieve new healthy behaviors. And of course it can be done; I witness patients changing behaviors every day in the clinic. I never cease to be amazed at the strength and determination of the human spirit.
My advice is to treat yourself and leave your car at home. Whether your commute is by bike or by foot, I guarantee (how often do doctors guarantee anything?) that with time you will be healthier, happier, richer, more creative and have greater confidence in yourself.
John Merrill-Steskal is a family physician who blogs at Triple Espresso MD.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com