Driving Is Actually Pretty Bad for You—but There Are Ways to Help

By: Bridget Clerkin December 17, 2018
Long drives can really take it out of you—but making sure your car seat is situated correctly can help you stay comfortable when you have a big commute.
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The act of driving has become so commonplace that it’s easy to overlook what a modern-day miracle it is.

Strapped to a seat that’s suspended on steel, we wield the power of hundreds of horses to send our bodies hurtling through space at incredible speeds.

But while our brains may go on autopilot behind the wheel, our bodies still very much bear the brunt of the athletic task, and long hours in the car taking a significant toll on us physically.

In fact, driving as little as a 10-mile round-trip has been linked to a rise in blood sugar, cholesterol, and anxiety. Add in the crush of rush-hour traffic to that journey, and the list only grows to include symptoms like short- and long-term blood pressure upticks, a decline in cardiovascular fitness, and poorer sleep.

For many, the daily roadway dance is unavoidable: The average American reportedly spending 38,000 hours in the car over a lifetime—thanks, in large part, to the creep of the daily commute. If you’re trying to calculate it out, that ends up working out to about 4 1/3 straight years on the road.

Still, the ride to work doesn’t have to be quite as physically painful as it may be emotionally raw. There are many ways to make the best of the situation and give your body as much of a break as possible while behind the wheel.

Straighten Up & Fly Right

It would, of course, be unreasonable for every car to come with a customized seat for its driver, but the way we sit in them should follow anything but a one-size-fits-all mentality.

The myriad of adjustment options on a given car seat are there for a reason: to create the most optimal ergonomic experience you possibly can with the seat that you have.

To start, the seat should be wider than your hips and thighs and long enough to hold up your hamstrings—but not so long that it puts pressure behind your knees while you’re driving. Two or three fingers should be able to fit, width-wise, in the space between where the seat ends and the back of your knee begins.

Figure out where the seat needs to be on the tracks by pushing your backside to the deepest crevice of the seat, then figuring out where you can fully decompress the pedals while having your knees remain slightly bent.

The myriad of adjustment options on a given car seat are there for a reason: to create the most optimal ergonomic experience you possibly can with the seat that you have.

Vertically, the seat should cover the entire length of your spine and reach—but not come above—your shoulders. Headrests should be moved to end at the top of your head. And you should adjust the tilt accordingly until your elbows are both slightly bent while maintaining contact with the wheel, even during turns.

But according to wellness practitioner and physical therapist Miguel Burrola, we shouldn't just be relying on the seat for support.

“Basically, when we’re driving, we should all be pulling the belly button into the spine, as if we were doing yoga,” he said. “Because when we sit in that seat, we let the belly hang, and when that belly hangs, it’s pulling our back muscles forward—which pulls on the hip, the psoas, the lower lumbar. It pulls everything forward, and then the quads get tight, because you’re letting the core hang out there, so the quads have to pick up the extra slack for keeping us upright.”

The chain reaction is a full-body experience, Burrola says, which could affect us in a number of ways we may not even suspect.

The number one cause for back pain isn’t even our backs,” he explains. “It’s our inner thighs—which get quite a workout when you’re sitting in that chair for driving, and all you’re moving is your foot from brake to gas, brake to gas.”

Still, there are some physical faults that can be directly related to the seat itself, he says.

“Some of these seats we shouldn’t be driving in at all, because when you’re sitting in them with your back flush, sometimes your shoulders blades will push in [at] the back. Then that tension is there in your neck, and that starts pulling on everything, too.”

In recent years, some carmakers have started to take pains to correct the uncomfortable situation.

Park It

Mercedes Benz AMG S 63 4MATIC+ Cabriolet, 2017
The Mercedes-AMG S 63 features carefully designed car seats that include additional bolsters on the sides to better fit the driver.

It’s one of the most overlooked—and essential—aspects of a car: the place you park yourself while logging all those hours at the helm.

How the seats come to be is a fascinating process in its own right, with nearly every automaker using outside companies such as Adient, Faurecia, and Lear to produce the items. The suppliers themselves take into account any number of outside opinions, including those of ergonomic experts, designers, software engineers, and even chemists and metallurgists to come up with a place to sit that’s not only comfortable and stylish but good for helping both humans and cars alike distribute their weight properly.

While most buyers are more concerned with those first two results, it’s the final task that’s the biggest priority for many carmakers—and the most difficult to achieve.

Part of the problem is that seats must be designed with a full range of body types in mind. The same perch, in all but customized cases, is typically meant to hold anyone from a jockey to a basketball star.

This complicates things quite a bit from the design standpoint, with a “simple” front seat requiring as many as 200 distinctive parts—and ranging up to 700.

Yet to help with the problem of posture, even more items are being added to car seats.

Mercedes-Benz has started including additional side bolsters to their seats, meant to keep a driver in the appropriate position through any twists and turns on the road. Fellow luxury brand Cadillac has incorporated vibrating cushions on either side of the driver’s seat, to help alert anyone behind the wheel when—and on which side—a car begins to drift out of its lane, and keep drivers upright.

For inspiration on how to best take care of their drivers’ bodies, Nissan turned to research performed by NASA on how the human spine reacts in the weightless environs of space. The result was the company’s Zero Gravity Seat, which utilizes 14 different pressure points on the human posterior to help keep drivers in a neutral position, which also helps keep blood flowing appropriately and, subsequently, boosts energy levels.

The tweaks certainly represent an ergonomic improvement, but if your car doesn’t have one, don’t fear: there are other ways to keep things straight.

Cruising to Success

One more tip that comes from Burrola is letting the car do even more of the heavy lifting.

We should all be using cruise control a lot more,” he says. “Although, of course, with that, you have to be more cautious paying attention to the road.”

Still, the concept makes up for that added focus by eliminating some of the more tedious movements for our bodies.

"Traveling takes a lot out of us,” Burrola says. “We’re changing altitudes, changing environments, changing temperatures or using heat and A/C–and all of that is impacting you. You’re really putting your body in fight or flight mode.”

Primarily, the ankles are saved from constant compression and extension, a benefit which could wend its way back up the body as well. According to Burrola, that adjustment helps prevent the calves from tightening up too much, a pressure which otherwise causes more work in the hamstrings, which can then, in turn, pull down on the psoas and lower back.

“This all shoots up to your inner-thigh,” he says. “And when all of those muscles get tightened, it starts pulling on the back, which indicates you have back pain, but you don’t, you actually have leg pain.”

Still, identifying the problem is a huge part of solving it, and, coupled with a few light physical and attitude adjustments, the trips can start taking much less of a toll, he says.

“Traveling takes a lot out of us,” Burrola says. “We’re changing altitudes, changing environments, changing temperatures or using heat and A/C—and all of that is impacting you. You’re really putting your body in fight or flight mode.

“It’s all backwards. We all care about our time and making our destination, and we should care much more about how we’re getting there.”

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