Everything You Need to Know About Car Ergonomics
You’ve probably heard people tell you all your life that good posture is important. We focus on standing up straight, getting office chairs that support our backs, and buying beds that have the right combination of sink and support. But do you ever think about your car ergonomics?
Your car can be a huge source of strain for your spine and joints, especially if you have a long commute. And most of us don’t practice proper driving posture or give our bodies the support they need in the car. Read on to learn how to optimize your car to keep your body aligned and supported any time you’re on the go.
Importance of Posture
Before we dive into how to get good car ergonomics, let’s talk a little about the ergonomics of posture. Good posture helps you center your weight over your feet. This can remove strain from your joints, keep your spine aligned, and help you live pain-free.
Good posture can also be important for improving your balance. Whether you’re older and at risk of falling or wanting to pursue some sort of athletic activity, having good balance is crucial. when you practice good posture, you balance your weight evenly, which makes it easier for you to keep your balance.
Problems of Bad Posture
One of the most common problems with bad posture is pain. Many people experience back pain as a result of hunching over their desks all day and slouching on the couch in the evening. Over time, you may also begin to notice problems with your knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, or other joints.
You may be surprised to learn bad posture can also cause you to gain weight. Your core muscles are important to maintaining good posture, and when you aren’t using them, they begin to weaken. Slouching may also slow down your digestion and cause other GI problems.
Why Driving Posture Matters
“Okay,” you may be saying, “I understand why it’s important to have good posture at work and at home. But why do I need to worry about posture while I’m driving?” It’s a fair question—after all, most of us spend an hour or less in our cars every day.
But the truth of the matter is that every moment of bad posture can contribute to your daily pain. And you may spend more time in your car than you think—after all, we don’t only drive to work and back. Trips to the store, weekend road trips, sitting in line at the gas station or the ATM, or going to pick up food can all put additional strain on your body.
Common Driving Posture Problems
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us don’t practice good driving posture most of the time. Your back should be straight and supported, our legs should be flat and parallel to the floor, and our hands should be at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. But how often have you pinched your phone between your shoulder and your ear while you were checking your hair in the rearview mirror and waving another driver over while you were driving?
Oftentimes, car seats don’t give us the lumbar support we need, so we wind up slouching over the wheel a little. To compensate for this, we may lean our seats back further than they should be, pulling our hips out of line. Then we have to jam our legs up next to the pedals so we can reach to put our hands on the steering wheel.
Support Your Back
The first step to improving your car ergonomics is to get some back support. If any part of your back isn’t touching the seat, it’s not getting enough support. This means you’re relying on your shoulder and core muscles to hold you in a good posture, and those muscles can be weak if you aren’t used to maintaining good posture.
Go out to your car and sit in the seat like you always would. Then slide back in the seat so your tailbone is as close to the back of the seat as possible. This should help give ever part of your back support while leaving a two- to three-finger gap between the back of your knees and the front of the seat.
Get a Lumbar Support Pillow
If you’re a smaller person or if you drive a large car, you may not have that two-finger gap between the back of your knees and the front of the seat. Trying to compensate for this can leave you sliding forward in your seat, pulling your back out of line. You need to make sure your back gets the support it needs while putting your knees in a healthier position.
One great way to make both of these things happen is to get a lumbar support pillow. These curved pillows tuck in behind the small of your back and help provide support to the muscles in your back. They can also help to shift you forward in the seat until your knees are in a proper position.
Lift Your Hips
Car seats tend to dip down at the back, creating a well for your hips to sink into. But this can pull your hips into an acute angle, placing more strain on your coccyx and your knees. It can also cut blood flow off to your back as the veins that run through your hips get pinched.
Pay attention to whether your thighs are at a right angle to your hips when you sit in your car. If not, get a seat cushion for your car that will lift your hips into a healthier position. If your coccyx has been causing you problems, you may want to look for a cushion with a cutout for your coccyx to remove pressure.
Raise Your Seat
Now that your hips are aligned the right way, it’s time to turn your attention back to your knees. If your car seat sits too low, it may pull your thighs into a slanted position. This leaves your knees strained, sitting with no support on top of your tibias.
If your seat is height-adjustable, raise it until your thighs are parallel to the floor or a little higher. Your hips and knees should both make ninety-degree angles to your thighs. You also need to make sure your eye level is at least three inches above the steering wheel without bumping your head into the roof.
Sometimes, in the quest to get our car seats to support our backs, we may lean the seats all the way up into their vertical position. The problem is that, rather than giving our backs the gentle support they need, this position shoves on our spines. It can push your back out of alignment, cause you to slouch more, and pull your hips out of line.
Once you’ve got your hips in the right position, lean your seat back a little. You want to aim for an angle between 100 and 100 degrees, rather than a straight vertical. But at the same time, you don’t want to be leaned back so far that you have to crane your neck forward to see over the steering wheel.
Use Your Headrest
When your car seat isn’t ergonomically aligned, you may not use your headrest at all. Maybe your seat is leaned too far back and your head never touches it, or maybe it’s leaned so forward you had to take it off. But now that your seat is aligned the right way, you need to make sure your headrest is in a proper position to support your neck.
The top of your headrest should sit somewhere between the top of your ears and the top of your head. When you’re sitting in the proper position in your seat, it should just touch the back of your head. If your headrest is properly aligned, it can also help to prevent whiplash if you get in an accident.
Stay the Right Distance from the Steering Wheel
Once you’ve got your back and hips in the right position, you should turn your attention to how far you are from the steering wheel. You want to be as far from the steering wheel as you can comfortably sit in order to protect yourself in the event of a crash. But you also don’t want to be putting strain on your shoulders and elbows in order to reach the wheel.
Chances are when you made all those adjustments to your seat, it changed how close your body is to the steering wheel. Move your seat forward or back so you can comfortably reach the pedals and the steering wheel. But don’t move so close that your foot hits the pedals every time you pick it up.
Adjust Your Mirror
It may sound strange to think that your mirrors can be a part of car ergonomics. But next time you go to check your side mirrors or rearview mirror, pay attention to what your body does. If your mirrors are positioned improperly, you may scrunch down to see in the side mirrors or crane your neck to look in the rearview mirror.
Make sure your side mirrors are angled up enough that you can look into them without having to hunch down. Your left mirror should be angled so the side of your car is just out of view, and your right side mirror should have the side of your car just in view. Your rearview mirror should be positioned so you can see out your rear windshield without craning your neck.
Stretch It Out
No matter how ergonomically positioned your car seat is, it’s going to get uncomfortable after you’re in it for a long time. Yes, the new positioning will help to reduce strain on your back, hips, knees, and neck. But we weren’t designed to sit in one place for hours on end, and it takes its toll.
If you’re on a long car trip, stop every couple of hours to stretch and get your blood pumping again. Get out of the car, shake out your arms and legs, and reach as far up to the sky as you can. Bend down and reach towards your toes, bend your knees, and maybe do some quick exercises to get your heart rate up and reduce risk of blood clots.
Keep the Right Position
The other thing you need to watch out for on long road trips is that you don’t let that great posture you just established slip. When you’re in the car for a long period of time, it’s natural to want to shift position. You may slide down in your seat, prop your leg up on the seat, or shift sideways to prop your elbow on the middle console.
During a road trip, it’s more important than ever to stay in an ergonomically healthy position. Try to sit up as straight as you can in your seat and maintain proper driving position. If you start to feel restless or achy, that’s your body cueing you that it’s time to take a break and stretch out for a minute.
Learn More About Car Ergonomics
Most of us don’t think about our car ergonomics from day to day, but they’re more important than you may realize. Proper driving posture can reduce pain and make long drives easier to manage. Make sure you’re sitting up straight in your seat and that your spine and joints are getting plenty of support.
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