The Fitness Drive

Driving long distances can aggravate back pain. Isometric exercises that can be done at the wheel may help alleviate it, by Aasheesh Sharma.

brunch Updated: Sep 14, 2013 17:27 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times

Five days a week, even as his neck and lower back protest, Varun Puri, 31, who works with a leading international bank, drives 35 kilometres from north Delhi’s Civil Lines to his Gurgaon office. “After having done 350 kilometres during the week, on the weekend I just feel like lying down simply to recover from the commute. The pain is aggravated on days I need to go for sales meetings. My doctor has recommended I don’t drive for more than an hour at a stretch, but that isn’t realistic,” he says.

Communications manager Mehak Chawla, 26, also drastically cut down on her driving when an orthopaedic specialist advised her to rest for at least eight weeks to alleviate debilitating backaches that began since she started driving to her office, 20 kilometres away from her east Delhi home.

Chawla’s and Puri’s are not isolated examples. Dr Rajesh Bawari, senior orthopaedic consultant with Max Hospital Saket, says the number of patients in the age group of 25 years to 40 years (mostly business executives) who complain of lower back pain, leg pain and sciatica owing to hours spent driving to work, is on the rise. “As far as possible, they should avoid rush-hour traffic. In severe cases, they could even explore working from home,” suggests Dr Bawari.

The Problem
Driving aggravates lower back pain, especially as the spine is subjected to jolts on the city’s potholed roads, says Dr Raju Tandon,
senior orthopedic surgeon with Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. Often, the cause can be traced back to bad automobile design. “These days many cars have a lower roofline and so, reduced interior space. To offset this, the seat is often lowered and tipped back which causes the legs to be straighter, placing strain on the hamstrings. This, in turn results in the pelvis rolling backwards. Pressure is also placed on the spine since the driver has to flex the neck by up to 20 degrees in an attempt to look straight ahead,” explains Dr Vaishya. “In certain cases, because of keeping the legs suspended, people can develop deep vein thrombosis and varicose veins. If the ankles swell further, the person can try wearing compression stockings. In milder cases, simply moving their ankle while waiting at traffic lights might be enough to enhance circulation,” he adds.

The Solutions
A set of simple isometric exercises (where one creates tension without changing the length of the muscles) can help you limber up and strengthen your core areas, even as you go on long drives.

Fitness and wellness expert Vesna Jacob, whose book Work It Out Without A Workout is targeted at urban professionals strapped for time, says safety is paramount while driving. “Never divert your attention from the road. But there are still plenty of traffic signals and congested jams that allow for exercises that can be carried out at the wheel.”

Jacob suggests a prudent mix of posture correction and isometric exercises (see box) to make long drives less painful. “Bad driving posture can cause problems in the neck, shoulders, lower back and knee areas. Research by the British Chiropractic Association says that more than 32,000 people visit a chiropractor every month with injuries that are aggravated or caused by a bad driving posture,” adds Jacob.

Biomechanics and Pilates specialist Neeraj Mehta of Delhi’s GFFI Fitness Academy recommends a back-extension to help tone your lower back muscles and get the blood circulation going. “Arch your back and tuck in the navel. Then push the backrest with your shoulders. Breathe normally, hold the stretch for 10 seconds. A back extension improves flexibility and helps relieve back pain caused by sitting on the driver’s seat for a long time,” adds Mehta.

Yoga and fitness instructor Sheetal Dhillon says even easy-to-implement yogic asanas such as shoulder socket rotation or Skandha Chakra, can go a long way in reducing stiffness in the cervical region.

Tips for rejuvenation
Fitness expert Vesna Jacob recommends that drivers adjust the seat belt so that it lies across the top of the shoulder. Ideally, it should not rub against the neck or upper arm. “Move the seat so the steering wheel is at a comfortable distance where your elbows are only slightly bent. However make sure you are at least 10 inches away from the airbag cover as advised by the safety recommendations,” adds Jacob.

To enhance blood circulation in the core areas (abdomen, back and pelvis), fitness expert Neeraj Mehta says the driver must sit on the hip bones with the upper body upright and the back arched. “Women should avoid wearing high heels and men thick-soled shoes as they exert additional stress on the ankle,” says Jacob. “Gently push into the back of the seat and then lengthen through your spine. Remember to retain the contact of your upper back and the seat throughout the drive,” she adds.

The objective of core exercises, says Jacob, is to turn the lower back and abdomen (usually the weakest portions of our bodies) into a fortress. Now that you have a recovery road-map, brace up to hit top gear.

Roadmap To Recovery
To minimise pains, try out these simple exercises – but only when you are stuck in a traffic jam!

Step 1: Lift your left arm and extend it
forward towards the windshield.
Step 2: Take the left arm towards the right shoulder and stretch it with the other hand. Support the arm by holding it below the
elbow. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, and then repeat it with the other hand.

Impact: It reduces stiffness of the shoulder and neck and enhances blood circulation, particularly in the shoulder and neck regions.
(Courtesy: Neeraj Mehta, GFFI Fitness Academy)

Back extension
Step 1: Push your back into the seat, place the hands on the wheel and gently push until you feel tension in your muscles.
Step 2: Arch your back and tuck in the navel. Then push the backrest with your shoulders. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds.

Impact: It improves flexibility and helps relieve back pain caused by sitting on the driver’s seat for long intervals. It also helps tone your lower back muscles and gets the blood circulation going.

(Courtesy: Vesna Jacob, fitness expert and author of Work It Out Without A Workout)

Torso twist

Step 1: Keep your hands on the steering and take a deep breath.
Step 2: Twist your torso towards the left and turn towards the backseat.
Impact: Helps cure stiffness in the shoulders caused by driving under stress.

(Courtesy: Yoga teacher and fitness expert Sheetal Dhillon )

Knee bend
Step 1: Holding the steering wheel with both hands, keep the spine straight and bend the right knee.
Step 2:Remove your right hand from the steering and bring the knee closer towards your chest.

Impact: It reduces stiffness of the core area (the abdomen, back and pelvis), that take the brunt of driving for long hours.

(Courtesy: Biomechanics specialist Neeraj Mehta of GFFI Fitness Academy )

From HT Brunch, September 15

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First Published: Sep 13, 2013 17:07 IST