Amongst all the awful devastation that the pandemic has caused so far, there have been ripples of positivity: stronger communities, the return to a slower-paced life and of course the demise, for some, of the daily — and dreaded — commute.
A survey by Hubble, an online marketplace for flexible office space, found that 79% of 1,000 respondents polled, said the lack of commute was one of the best things about working from home. But for those still going to the office, the pandemic has inspired them to take a different approach to how they travel to work.
Colin Secombe, a lawyer and joint managing partner of a law firm Lewis Denley, would often travel by car or bike to work but after the pandemic he decided to travel in by an e-skateboard he bought at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. While it’s illegal to travel via e-skateboard on main roads in the U.K., he has managed to find quieter routes that work for him.
“The decision to finally buy an e-skateboard was mainly prompted by the sudden hindrance on the ability to engage in most physical activities and hobbies during the first stage of the Covid lockdown,” said Secombe, who travels about three miles from his home to the office in Horsham, Sussex in England. “It was spring and I figured I could make good use of it during the lockdown and then use it to commute.”
He said the first skate to work was an “escape from the monotony of the new normal of lockdown life”. However now he builds extra time into his commute so he can take a longer, more enjoyable journey to work.
His commute has transformed from mundane to stimulating as a result. “An early morning skate to work replaces the effort of getting to work with a sense of thrill and excitement by allowing me to get out and enjoy both nature and the buzz of partaking in your hobby before the working day starts,” said Secombe. “You arrive with a child-like grin on your face and a trickle of adrenaline to flow you through your morning. Similarly, on leaving the office at the end of the day, that sluggish end-of-day feeling was promptly replaced by a sense of excitement to carve my way home.”
Before the pandemic Anastasia Balandina would jump on a bus and then walk to work from Surrey Quays in south-east London in the U.K. to London Bridge, but now the senior executive at PR agency Pan Communications cycles. Her commute is now just 15 minutes rather than the 45 minutes it took on the bus.
“I get some fresh air and exercise twice a day, which has been a great change mentally as I get to focus on the road, the [Thames] river and not think about work,” she said. She reels off other benefits: “I get to sleep a little longer and the cycling helps me get myself into a working headspace. It gets my blood circulating so when I get to the office I feel more energized and ready to get things done. It also feels pretty good to think that I am also adding regular exercise — even if it’s short bursts — to my week.” The environmental benefits are also an incentive for her.
Of course there are health benefits to not taking the bus or driving to work. One study published in medical journal The Lancet found that people who commuted by bike had a 24% reduced rate of cardiovascular disease mortality and a 16% lower rate of cancer mortality and an 11% reduced rate of incident cancer compared to those who travelled by car.
And an outdoor commute helps provide more exposure to light. “This is important for both vitamin D if the sun is out and also for the breaking down of melatonin, a sleep hormone, still lingering from the night before,” said clinic doctor Dr. Houda Ounnas. Light is also necessary for the making of the happiness hormone serotonin, which competes with melatonin for receptors in the brain, she added. “Less light, less melatonin breakage, less space for serotonin to occupy receptors in turn leads to less happiness and more depression. Vitamin D is also essential for energy and for bone health, in addition to its role in mental health. So, the more natural vitamin D the better.”
One person benefitting from more vitamin D is Thomas Jepsen. The CEO of Passion Plans, a platform that enables homeowners to easily buy pre-made house plans, used to drive to his office in his town of Raleigh in North Carolina in the U.S., but now walks the two miles instead.
“I feel productive walking to the office,” he said. “I don’t get frustrated during my commute anymore. I used to sit in the worst traffic jam and start the morning feeling frustrated because of it.” Of course there are other benefits to feeling calmer. “Besides feeling mentally and physically more fit, it’s great to have lost 32 pounds,” said Jepsen, who added that he receives surprised looks when he tells people he walks to work.
Psychotherapist Hilda Burke says switching our commute to make sure it involves exercise outside helps us mentally in two ways.
“What’s familiar can become invisible so the more we become used to a certain route, a certain journey, the less we tend to notice,” she said. “When we expose ourselves to a new way of getting to work, we’re more aware of new the sounds, sights and smells of that route. It can literally wake us up. And if we’re working in a creative job, it’s even more important that we stimulate ourselves in new ways.
Secondly, she said, by making our commute more outdoorsy we can benefit from being in nature — or at least in more of a natural environment — even the most densely populated city will have at least a few trees for us to gaze on. “Simply spending time in nature can make us more attentive and perceptive.”
And it can help others too. As Secombe said: “The buzz carries through once I’ve arrived home, benefiting both me and my wife and kids.”