Road Trips and Commutes: Making the Best of Driving

August 02, 2016 | Chiropractic, Lifestyle, Wellness, Work

Stop Driving yourself Crazy:  A Guide for the Commuter and the Road Tripper

Driving is hard on the body. Whether you are taking a long road trip this summer or regularly commute to work by car, you know that all that sitting can take a toll on your spinal health.


According to Statistics Canada, 70% of Ottawa residents drive to work and spend an average of 26 minutes, twice a day doing so. That adds up to an average of 208 hours a year spent in the car, just to get to and from work. Researchers have documented the negative effects of prolonged sitting and have found that commuters are more likely to report pains and aches in their backs and necks. Furthermore, if the driving increases your stress level – think heavy traffic on the Queensway at 4:00 on a steamy Friday afternoon – you have a higher chance of suffering from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.


Road trips, on the other hand, are meant to be enjoyable as you are making memories on the road. Nevertheless, the toll of a long car drive can certainly be felt by passengers and drivers in their backs.


Many people choose to bike, walk or run to work. In Ottawa, we even have people who skate to work during the winter along the canal. While avoiding driving altogether is ideal, it sometimes can’t be avoided. If you are planning to take a long road trip or regularly commute to and from work in your car, make the best of your next drive with the following seven tips:


1. Make yourself comfortable

Whether it is a half hour drive home, or for a four-hour bout of driving to the next city, you should always consider your personal comfort first. What is uncomfortable in your driveway will not become magically comfortable two hours later. A quick set up before leaving the house will avoid aches and pains down the road.

2. Clothing

Remove any clothing that could restrict your movements such as a heavy winter jacket or a jacket with narrow shoulders. You should be able to extend your arms straight in front of you comfortably.


You should also avoid wearing improper shoes such as slippers, flip-flops, large boots or high heels. If this is a common occurrence, you should keep a pair of comfortable running shoes in your car that you can change into after work. The ideal shoe allows for full range of motion at the ankle, fits comfortable on your foot without slipping, and fits nicely on the pedal.  


Finally, if you are accustomed to placing your wallet in your back pocket, it should be removed before you commence your drive to ensure proper movement and comfort.  

3. Adjust your seat

Unlike office chairs, car seats are tough to replace: you’re stuck with the one the car manufacturer put in there. However, like office chairs, they can be set up to better fit your body and decrease the strain on your back. There are also external supports that can be added to help make you more comfortable.


Your seat distance should be measured as follows: put your right foot on the brake pedal and depress it completely. Adjust the seat so that there is still a slight bend (about 120°) in your knee while doing so. If your leg is fully extended, the seat is too far and will cause your knee to lock-up. If your leg is too bent, you may suffer from bad circulation in the lower part of your leg.


The angle of the seat should also be set and/or adjusted so that you can comfortably reach the steering wheel with your elbows bent and wrists in a neutral position while having your shoulder blades still touching the seat. If the angle is too acute, you will feel increased pressure in your lower back. If the angle is too obtuse, your upper back will tense up and fatigue quickly.


If you can adjust your seat height, ensure that it doesn’t put pressure under your thighs and that you can comfortably see the road ahead without craning your neck. If your car has adjustable lumbar support, make sure that it is appropriately placed in the middle of your lumbar curve – the center of which can be felt right between the top of your pelvis.


The headrest should be behind your head, not your neck. You should be able to comfortably rest your head on it while driving. This will ensure proper neck posture and decreased shoulder tension. A properly set headrest will also decrease your chance of whiplash in the case of an accident.


If you share your car with anyone, make sure you go through all of these steps prior to hitting the road.


4. Sit properly

Now that your seat is properly set up for you, how do you use it best?  Improper foot positioning is a common cause of low back pain, pelvic rotation, and sciatica. In an automatic car, your left foot should rest on the dead pedal, keeping your left leg at approximately the same angle as the right one. This will ensure that your pelvis remains straight while driving.

Make sure you sit straight and that your buttocks and back are square and completely squeezed into the seat.


Place your hands on the steering wheel with your wrists in a neutral position. Grip the steering wheel gently: white knuckle driving can lead to tendonitis in the elbow. Keep your shoulders back and relaxed. Position your head above your shoulders and support it on the headrest.


If you can’t make yourself comfortable, no matter how hard you try, the problem may not be with the seat but with the passenger. Make sure you see your chiropractor if sitting comfortably is difficult for you. It may be the sign of an underlying spinal issue.


5. Equip yourself with additional tools

If your car doesn’t have proper lumbar support, an easy fix is the Back Vitalizer, a small inflatable cushion available for sale in both our clinics. The Back Vitalizer will support your lumbar curvature and decrease the stress on your spine.


For long car rides, putting a pillow on your lap can help rest your upper back by providing support for your arms while you steer the car. This way, you can keep both hands on the bottom of the wheel and will not be tempted to lean to one side, supporting your right arm on the center console and keeping your left hand on the wheel.


6. Take breaks

Many online tools can help you map fun road trips with frequent fun breaks for the whole family. You should get out of your car and stretch every two hours or so.

Take a short walk and breathe in some fresh hair. Stretch your hamstrings, buttocks, hip flexors, upper back, wrists, and elbows. Take note of where you are starting to feel fatigue and re-evaluate your sitting posture. Before your next road trips, ask your chiropractor to show you how to stretch to minimize the wear and tear the long drive is having on your spine and joints.


7. Keep it fun

If you dread your time on the road, your commute will appear that much longer. It can even cause a momentary spike in your blood pressure and just make you plain miserable. If your commute is inevitable, you may as well make the best of it. In order to make it less stressful, learn to use your time in the car to do something you enjoy.


Car games:

If you have a company, there are many car games that will make time fly. Driving games aren’t just for kids. My favorites are 21 questions, the Alphabet game, and the Movie game, just to name a few. You can also keep a stack of Trivial Pursuit question cards in your glove box and quiz the driver.


Audiobooks, podcasts, music, etc.:

Audiobooks are my favorite thing about car trips. Did you know that the Ottawa library carries a large collection of audiobooks that you can download for free directly onto your smartphone? Most are so well narrated and engaging that you will sit in your car in your driveway just to finish a chapter. Short stories are great for the daily commuter while long epic novels can keep you driving for hours on end without feeling bored once.


iTunes and other internet music providers also count thousands of podcast on every imaginable subject. Most are free and subscribers will receive updates regularly. You’ll have something new and interesting to listen to on a regular basis. There are many comedy podcasts that will keep you laughing – and who can be a grumpy commuter when you’re busy giggling the miles away.


If you’d rather listen to music, ask friends for playlists and recommendations. Almost everyone carries around thousands of their favorite songs in their back pocket, and almost everyone loves to talk about their favorite music. Discovering new music and bands will keep your drive interesting. Who knows, you may even start looking forward to your drive to work!


Make the best of your next drive by making yourself as comfortable as possible and keeping it enjoyable. Sit back, put a smile on your face, crank up your favorite tunes and hit the road!