The rise of the fake commute, and why it's good for your mental health

Using the morning for walks instead of commuting via train has enabled Ilona Alcock to discover beautiful places near her neighborhood in Wigan, Greater Manchester, England.

(CNN) -- If the blur between work and home is still a struggle, mimicking your route from the Before Times may be the solution you need.

For many people, commuting to work can be the worst part of their day: There is the chance of sitting in standstill traffic. Or, railway problems might leave you disembarking and on an unexpected journey.

For others, however, commuting may have been a ritual that was critical for their mental health and work-life balance. Enter the rise of the "fake commute," wherein people replace that daily transition with walks, runs, bike rides and more.

Before the pandemic, Beth Kanter often spent her mornings boarding airplanes to business obligations. "I went back to looking at a journal entry from last year as I was reflecting on the year, and I was sort of complaining to myself saying it would be nice to not have to travel so much," said Kanter, a Bay Area, California-based author, virtual facilitator and trainer who works in the nonprofit social change sector.

Not long into the pandemic, Kanter felt the stress and knew that to maintain resilience, she had to establish boundaries and routines by doing a fake commute in the morning.

"I realized that a lot of the time on airplanes was reflection time and thinking time," said Kanter, who has been doing an hour-long morning walk. She has learned neighborhood routes and looked for succulents and photographed them — birthing an "obsession" that led to her own succulent garden.

"Routines and rituals are very beneficial to us, because they're things that we understand and know what to expect from them," said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association.

"The routine sets up for us, without having to think about what we're going to do next, 'Here is how my day is going to flow,'" she said. "It helps us ease from point A to point B."

Commutes are forced pauses that signal the time to transition from one's work identity to another identity, such as parent, spouse or friend, said Ravi S. Gajendran, an associate professor at Florida International University's College of Business. "Working full time from home during the pandemic makes it difficult to transition between work and home roles," he said via email.

"Many individuals are shifting between being a parent/spouse and an employee multiple times during a day," Gajendran added.

"It's hard to smoothly hop on to a work-related Zoom call right after dealing with a demanding situation with kids at home. Likewise, it's hard to leave behind the stresses and mental worries of work-related Zoom call and instantly switch to being a loving and caring partner or spouse."

The bliss of boundaries

Ilona Alcock, another faithful fake commuter, and her husband shifted from train rides and walks to enjoying strolls to "create a split between home and work."

"The fake commutes were an absolute lifeline for myself and my husband," added Alcock, cofounder of business development consultancy Elevate Greater Manchester in England. "They gave me a reason to get out of bed at the same time each morning and set me up for a more productive, active day. Walking outside has a massive positive impact on my mental health."

For several months now, the practice has been a way for Alcock to start her day with fresh air, green spaces and time to learn. "It has a positive impact on my whole day and I often have my best ideas during these walks," she said.

Kanter's fake commutes have been a meditational respite as well. She has found a way to "be in the moment and observe, which I know is another technique for getting through trauma," Kanter said. "It brought down the stress levels and the fear and the negative thinking, and improved (my) concentration."

Nick Shepherd, a business development executive in Stockport, England, has been waking up earlier to "go for a wander and see the world wake up" since October. "I think people (think) that it's nice to just wake up straight from your bed and go straight to your desk to work for the day," he added, "but it makes such a difference having that time before work to yourself."

Joseph Neville, an accountant and county councilor in Kildare, Ireland, also missed that distinction — so instead of spending up to 40 minutes in a car or train, a 40-minute walk helps him improve clarity of thought.

No commute meant that Louise Sharp was increasingly logging in to her laptop earlier and finishing later. An 8-kilometer (nearly 5-mile) walk helped her process her responsibilities, improve her mood and become motivated and more aware.

"Spending too much time in front of a screen and with no likely return to the office, I knew I had to do something," said Sharp, a whole family practitioner in Warrington, Cheshire, England.

Creating a fake commute

Starting your own fake commute can be as simple as walking, running or biking for around the same time or mileage that your former trip took. Some people drive to their office building, stay in the car, then return home in time to start work. "People who segment do have better work-life balances," said Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia.

Whichever substitute you choose, a key is to "make it a habit and prepare the night ahead," Alcock said. Adding a social aspect could make the habit more enjoyable and sustainable. Kanter recruited her husband and declared their commute a "no-COVID discussion zone," she said via email. Alcock has found that the morning chats with her husband help keep their "relationship strong throughout the pandemic."

Since some people's homes are masquerading as offices, just having your laptop in sight can be stressful. Separate yourself from work by also shifting your area, Bufka said, perhaps by putting away your laptop and shelving notebooks.

"Depending on what people really appreciate about the notion of transition and figuring out what kind of time they might need," Bufka added, "plan on that." That transition could be spending time alone or simply changing clothes.

In addition to the benefits for mental health and work-life balance, fake commutes could improve your physical health. Before the pandemic, Kanter learned that her cholesterol was high — but when she had a follow-up appointment with her doctor months later, her cholesterol had normalized.

Walking and other forms of exercise can help to reduce problems with stress, mental health and sleep, research has shown. Physical activity can also boost your immunity and respiratory health, which are critical factors in how a person fares if infected with coronavirus.

"There's some opportunities here to build some new habits or new structures into our day-to-day lives that will serve us well," Bufka said, "whether there's a pandemic or not."

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