Few things are more boring than sitting at a stop light, waiting for that big red beacon to turn a glorious shade of green. And unfortunately, that's not the only time we sit in our driver's seat with the engine idling. According to the 2011 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute, the average commuter spends 34 hours a year tied up in traffic congestion -- up from 14 hours in 1982 [source: Texas A&M Transportation Institute]. All the while, we're doing something hazardous to our health: Sitting for extended periods of time contributes to slower metabolism, muscle imbalances, and a host of ailments like cardiovascular disease and cancer [source: Levine].
Even though the demands of driving and the physical limitations of a car drastically limit your opportunities for fitness when you're behind the wheel, we've found five exercises to help pass the time and combat some of these health problems. But before you start incorporating the exercises on the following pages, remember that these movements are complements -- not substitutes -- for a well-rounded fitness regimen that incorporates cardiovascular and resistance training. Also, while sitting still can be hazardous to your long-term health, distracted driving poses a serious and immediate threat to you and your fellow drivers, so stay alert to your surroundings and stop exercising when you're in motion. With those caveats in mind, let's look at a few ways to keep moving until the light turns green.
It's no secret that our posture falls apart whenever we sit for an extended period of time. We slouch forward, lengthening the muscles of our upper back and tightening our chests. One exercise to combat these postural deficiencies is the shoulder blade retraction. Grip the steering wheel with both arms without bending at the elbows. Pull your chest toward the steering wheel while driving your shoulder blades together, tightening the muscles between them. Hold the position for one or two seconds, then release. That's one repetition. Assuming you have the time, perform two to three sets of 10 repetitions. "The time under tension is really important," says David Peterson, gym owner and personal trainer at Infinity Fitness in Darien, Conn. "Feeling yourself squeeze the shoulder blades together is much more important than just moving yourself forward or backward" [source: Peterson].
You can also try the inverse exercise: shoulder blade protractions. Keep your arms straight and round your back as you push yourself away from the steering wheel. This works the serratus anterior muscles running along the side of the body near the ribs.
The vacuum hold primarily works the transversus abdominis -- a group of core muscles in your midsection -- and assists in correcting posture. It's a technique that the bodybuilders of yesteryear used in competitions. And while it's a good diversion while you're sitting at a traffic light, you can perform the vacuum hold virtually anywhere, whether you're waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting at home watching television.
To perform the vacuum hold, simply tighten your abdomen and suck in your midsection. "It doesn't relate to holding your breath; you should be able to hold it in while breathing normally," Peterson says. Start by holding the pose for 15 seconds. Over time, work your way up to a 60-second hold [source: Peterson]. You can also time it with the movements in traffic: Tense your midsection when you hit the brakes and release once you start moving again.
It's probably clear by now that even though you can't work on your cardio or set a new bench-press record at a stop light, you can improve your posture. We've already touched on the abdomen and the shoulders -- but what about the neck? "Those muscles on the back of the neck are going to help you hold your head upright and give proper posture," Peterson says. You can strengthen these muscles with the chin tuck. Push the back of your head against the headrest and use your neck to drive your chin down into your chest, exaggerating each movement. Hold each repetition for one second and perform 15 repetitions [source: Peterson].
Many fitness buffs overlook the importance of grip strength. But a stronger grip translates to improved performance in sports from golf to judo, an ability to handle heavier loads in the weight room, and more easily performing almost any task that involves using your hands.
To work on your grip while you're driving, travel with hand grippers -- plastic handles connected by a coil that produces resistance. Squeeze the handles together for a certain number of repetitions -- try performing three sets of 20 repetitions. You can also perform isometric holds, in which you sustain the squeeze for several seconds at a time. Try squeezing for five to 10 seconds. If you don't have hand grippers, you can squeeze a rubber stress ball or simply grip the steering wheel as tightly as possible.
In addition to the compressing motion of using gripping devices, extending your fingers outward can improve your hand strength. Place a taut rubber band around your fingers to provide resistance and flare them outward.
In the previous section, we talked about performing isometrics to improve grip strength. The glute squeeze is another type of isometric exercise, which helps circulation and counters the tingling sensation from sitting too long. Simply contract and tense your gluteal muscles. Hold each contraction for at least 10 seconds and perform 10 repetitions. You can perform isometric-style exercises with your thighs, chest, and other body parts following the same repetition scheme.
These exercises should help keep you busy while you're waiting at the traffic light. Just make sure that every once in a while, when you climb out of the driver's seat, you're heading out to work up a sweat.
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- Levine, James. ''What are the risks of sitting too much?'' Mayo Clinic. (Aug. 26, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sitting/AN02082
- Peterson, David. Gym Owner and Personal Trainer, Infinity Fitness Gym. Personal Interview. Aug. 20, 2012.
- Texas A&M Transportation Institute. ''Traffic problems tied to the economy, study says.'' Sept. 27, 2011. (Aug. 26, 2012) http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/media-information/press-release/
- Squires, Sally. ''Drive Yourself to Fitness.'' WashingtonPost.com. Aug. 15, 2006. (Aug. 20, 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/14/AR2006081400879.html