Car Ergonomics: Five Ways to Relax While Driving

If you’re tired of feeling aches, pains, and stiffness after driving, you’re probably looking for ways to improve your car ergonomics. There are plenty of ways to adjust your steering wheel, reposition your seat, change the angle of your seat back, and use pillows for support. But the key to feeling comfortable while driving—and afterwards—is to adjust how you’re using your body while driving. 

Here are five ways to improve your car ergonomics without messing with your vehicle or buying any more accessories. 

1. Let your neck be free. 

The neck is one place where people tend to hold excess tension while driving or doing any other high-intensity, high-risk activity. Most often, the problem is that we shorten the back of the neck and hold the head rigidly in place, tilted slightly backwards. By the end of a couple hours’ drive, you’ll really feel the results of that tension. 

To prevent this from happening to you, start off any drive by sitting behind the steering wheel and focusing on letting the neck be free. This isn’t something you can really “do”; rather, it’s something you need to allow. Just pause for a few moments and feel a lack of tension in the neck. Imagine the head gaining the freedom to float up and the forehead gaining the freedom to tilt slightly foreward. Again, don’t crane your neck or force your head upwards—you’re simply letting the freedom happen. 

Once your neck feels freer, practice some quick, smooth turns from side to side, as if you were looking in one of your mirrors or checking your blind spot. If you’re truly relaxed, it should be easy to turn. 

2. Widen your gaze. 

No discussion of car ergonomics would be complete without addressing the way we look at our surroundings. As we sit behind the wheel and try to remain alert, it’s easy to start staring intently in the direction we’re looking. Instead, soften your gaze by relaxing the eyes and trying to see a wider field of vision. Can you truly notice the things that are visible in the corners of your eyes? What about the ceiling of your car—can you be aware of that as you look out through the windshield? Simply widening your field of vision can reduce eye strain without making you any less aware of your surroundings. In fact, it may actually help you notice more potential hazards in all directions.

3. Use your seat well. 

A hotbed of tension for many drivers is the trapezius, the muscle that runs between the shoulders and base of the neck. When facing heavy traffic and other stressful situations, drivers often lean in closer to the steering wheel and scrunch the shoulders upwards towards the ears. This can result in even more discomfort than holding tension in the neck because the trapezius muscles are larger than neck muscles. 

To avoid trapezius tension, position yourself properly from the beginning of your drive. First, lean back so that your back and shoulders are touching your seat. Next, bring your arms up and grip the steering wheel (but don’t strangle it). As you drive, think of your palms gently pushing into the steering wheel and your shoulders and upper back moving the opposite direction into the seat. This will help keep you from scrunching forward and holding tension that will result in soreness after your drive. 

You may initially feel too relaxed and not “in control” enough with this posture. But you need to trust it so that you can see what a difference it makes in your level of tension. 

4. Let every action have an opposite reaction. 

Driving is full of reaching. We reach with our arms to shift gears, crank the AC, or find a radio station. Even more often, we reach with our legs to press the gas and brake pedals. But all too often, we try to “help out” by moving the entire shoulder along with the arm, or the hip along with the leg.

You can counter this bad habit, too. Before you begin your drive, practice creating an opposite motion for every reaching motion you typically make in the car. When you reach with your arm to turn a dial or pull a lever, think of allowing your back to lengthen and widen, and your ribs to move backwards towards your seat. When you reach with your foot to press a pedal, picture your hip actually pulling back towards the seat. By focusing on opposite motions, you’ll avoid creating extra tension in your most commonly performed driving tasks.  

5. Hollow out down low. 

At some point in your driving, you’ll need to go in reverse. That means twisting your head, neck, and upper body to look out your back window. Twisting isn’t bad for you, but you’ll want to be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t involve excess tension. One common bad habit is to sway the back and thrust the belly forward while twisting. Instead of doing that, focus on forming a little cave with your belly, flexing slightly as if you were just beginning to do a sit-up. You’ll find that you can still twist, but now the motion doesn’t involve tension in your lower back. 

As you can see, the best car ergonomics strategies have nothing to do with tweaking your car. By making a few adjustments to your body instead, you’ll have a much more comfortable drive. You may even find your next road trip to be downright relaxing.

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