As someone who has spent a lot of her life in a car driving to and from work, it’s been clear that it impacts me physically. I always notice low back pain, shoulder and neck tension, and general tightness after days with a lot of driving. I wanted to take some time to talk through how driving impacts our body and how you can reduce the negative side effects.
My research began with a study from the US National Library of Medicine/National Institute of Health. In a published study from 2014 they found that, “Findings suggested that longer driving time was associated with higher odds for smoking, insufficient physical activity, short sleep, obesity, and worse physical and mental health. The associations consistently showed a dose-response pattern and more than 120 minutes of driving per day had the strongest and most consistent associations with the majority of outcomes.”
Through the past 10 years, a lot more studies have been done to understand how frequent driving is connected to poor muscle mechanics, unhealthy lifestyle choices and generally reduced health. This research even extends to those with generally long commutes using public transportation. The study showed, “Based on unadjusted analyses, those who spent more time driving were more likely to report obesity, fair/poor quality of life, high/very high psychological distress, time stress, and having physical health or emotional problems that interfered with social functioning.” In general those who drive/commute a lot daily are more at risk for overeating, eating unhealthy foods, poor sleep, less exercise, and generally less time for themselves, resulting in mental stress. This is especially true for those who are middle aged or older.
Another interesting article I came across was published from Time magazine in 2014. This article breaks down the 10 most common side effects of commuting on the body. This includes:
1) Higher blood sugar and
2) Higher cholesterol
Both high blood sugar and cholesterol for those who drive frequently are due to meal options most people have when they spend so much time on the road i.e. fast food. Spending lots of time driving also leads to reduced ability to exercise and that increases disease risk.
3) Increased risk of depression
Between the stress of being in the car with accidents slowing you down, the boredom, and the act of driving keeping you from participating in fun activities and using that time for things you enjoy, it’s easy to see how depression can happen.
4) Increased anxiety
Also, the act of driving can be unpredictable. Accidents happen and days are often spent having the concern on when you will arrive at work? Will you be late? I would rather be doing something else! So many thoughts go through our minds on these long commutes, and most people would much rather be anywhere else!
5) Overall decline in mental health
With increased drive times, the volume of exercise typically goes down, convenience foods often become more popular and the quality of our time goes down. It’s important to take steps to prioritize your mental health as many people in this situation suffer from poor mental health.
6) Blood pressure spikes
Blood pressure spikes in times of stress and commuting to work can be very stressful! People cutting you off, overall traffic conditions, and being concerned you’ll be late definitely lead to those spikes in blood pressure. Your overall blood pressure can also be higher due to the general health conditions that surround those with poor eating habits and reduced levels of exercise.
7) Cardiovascular health declines
Cardiovascular health refers to your heart health. Those with a more sedentary life tend to have poor cardiovascular health. Making sure you get enough movement is so important to maintaining good cardiovascular health and reducing your risk of various diseases.
8) Poor sleep cycles
With the stress and anxiety of long drives, this can often lead to having difficulty sleeping at night. Poor eating and exercise also leads to increased problems with falling and staying asleep.
9) Back pain
Sitting for long periods of time, leaning over a steering wheel and muscular tension from traffic etc. all can contribute to back pain. Long days of sitting are one of the worst things for back pain. This can cause overactive and tight muscles that will need to be exercised to resolve pain.
10) Other muscular issues
The act of driving often leads to poor posture and the stop and go of the gas and brake pedal leads to engagement and rest of the driving leg(s). Those who drive a lot may notice additional curvature in their back from bad posture. They may notice tightness in the shoulders/neck or rounding of the shoulders from the act of keeping the arms lifting in front of you to use the steering wheel. You may also notice some excess tightness in your driving leg, ankle discomfort, hip discomfort etc. The muscular system is all connected so tightness or over engagement of the foot/ankle can lead to knee, hip and back pain. It’s important to pay attention to how driving is impacting your body.
So now that you know all the negatives you could be facing from extended periods of driving, what can you do to help?
1) Plan meals ahead of time
One of the big reasons those who drive a lot are connected to those more likely to have high cholesterol, blood pressure or increased risk of disease is because of the meals they are consuming. Often when so much time is spent commuting, we think we will save ourselves time by hitting a drive thru. As convenient as this feels, these meals are rarely balanced, high in sodium and fat and very high in calories. This will often lead you to feeling fatigued on your drive and the excess calories can quickly lead to weight gain.
Taking time to think through your meals in advance can make all the difference and despite what many people think, meal planning and prepping can actually be done quickly and effectively. Personally I either pick up my groceries or have them delivered. This saves me the time of shopping the aisles and wondering what it is I’m forgetting. Instead as I think of something I need I add it to my online order.
When it comes to making the meals themselves, if it’s a lunch, it’s easy to pack your own sandwich and chips and you’ll have more control over your diet. For breakfast I like to prep a large batch of an egg scramble and then separate it out for each day. My egg scramble takes me like 15 minutes to make and last for 5 meals. Then when it comes to dinner, there’s so many easy ways to make a balanced meal! Even if you only have 15-20 minutes (which is how long it takes to order at a fast food restaurant), buying a bag of frozen veggies and covering them with olive oil and seasoning on a baking sheet and baking them in the oven at 450 for 15-20 minutes is so easy! For a healthy carb, you can make a pot of rice and then there’s even pre marinated chicken, fish, pork etc. that just get thrown in the oven too. This is all very little prep and results in a quick and easy balanced meal!
2) Find a way to destress
Sometimes we have no option but to drive, so we need to balance this out. It’s so important to find way to relieve stress in day-to-day life. Whether you prefer walking, yoga, pilates, biking, crafting, making art, journaling, meditation or a variety of other things, find time to fit them into your life. As much as adding something to your life may seem stressful, often it only takes 5 minutes to shift out mindset. So give yourself those 5 minutes and grow on the time when you can!
3) Find a way to get in more exercise
While the thought of fitting in exercise may also seem impossible, it can be as easy as making some small manageable changes. For those who drive for a living, when stopping at rest areas, take those few minutes to do a lap and get in a bit more exercise. For everyone, you could start your day with 5 minutes of movement. Maybe that’s slow movement, or maybe it’s high intensity like some jumping jacks. It’s all about starting somewhere manageable. Once you start, you’ll notice how these small changes benefit you and can continue making those small changes and finding as much balance as possible!
4) Focus on driving posture
Driving posture can greatly reduce the impact driving can have on your muscles. Some tips to keep in mind:
Make sure the steering wheel is not too high. When driving your arms should go out straight in front of you not raised up over the shoulder height. Too high can lead to a lot of shoulder and neck tightness and discomfort.
Support your lumbar. They make great lumbar pillows for those who drive, and this will help support your low back.
Lean back slightly. Having a slight lean back, but not too much, can help keep the back relaxed.
Don’t sit too close. You should comfortably reach the pedals and steering wheel without hunching over it.
5) Stop for breaks when you can
Even taking 5 minute breaks to stretch your legs or back can reduce how fatigued your body feels. This break will also help to relax your mind and set you up for a calmer mindset.
Driving often leads to muscular imbalances, but those can be combated with a simple stretch routine. Try starting your day with 5 minutes of stretching, and/or take small breaks in the day to repeat this. Stretching those tight muscles as often as you can will keep you from getting those imbalances that lead to muscular pain. For more on this, feel free to reach out to me directly!
We all know the body wasn’t made for driving, but it’s often an unavoidable part of our life. Hopefully learning about how it impacts the body can help you to see how important making these small changes is. There is a balance that can be found, but you must keep in mind how you can help your body long-term and keep from having all those muscle aches and pains as you grow older. So prioritize yourself now and see the benefits now and later!
Until next time… and remember balance is for all!