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LIFE ON WHEELS

HEALTH & FITNESS : Stretching the Comfort Zone for Arduous Drives Home

June 22, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Millions of years from now, evolution may modify the human body to make it better adapted to driving a car. Shoulders will no longer stiffen, neck muscles will not tie themselves in knots and the lumbar spine will remain frozen for hours on end without so much as a twinge.

But by then, we probably won't even have cars anymore. Even if we do, it's a good bet that all the construction on the Costa Mesa Freeway will be completed, so our traffic problems will be much improved.

Who knows? The barricades blocking off that new car-pool lane on the San Diego Freeway may even be gone by then.

In any case, today's drivers have to come up with a more immediate solution to the aches, pains and overall strain of spending sizable chunks of our lives stuck behind the wheel.

For some, the answer is a drink to take the edge off after the car is safely in the garage. (Life on Wheels does not recommend this method; we only acknowledge it.)

Others prefer a workout to exorcise some of the aggressions and tensions. That can help, but with a typical daily commute of more than 40 minutes round-trip (that's the case for 43% of us in Orange County, according to a 1988 survey), not everyone can spare the time.

But all you need is 90 seconds, according to Dr. Carl Held of Newport Beach, who deals exclusively with the treatment of chronic pain at his Headache and Backache Institute. Take just 1 1/2 minutes for stretching exercises before and after driving, Held says, and you can escape what he calls "that drained feeling."

Too many drivers, he says, just assume that the physical side effects of driving are unavoidable. "I think people see the strain of driving as a fact of life," he says. "I don't think they realize how much of a problem it is and what it does to the body.

"You get a stiff neck, but that's not all that's involved," Held says. "When you're driving, your whole upper body gets involved, all the way to the lower back."

Because most of his patients cannot avoid driving or other activities, such as working on computers, that aggravate their chronic pain, Held says his job often seems "like trying to heal somebody's black eye and have them go back into the ring every day."

So in the last seven years Held--who began his medical career as an internist and psychiatrist before developing his specialty--has developed a sequence of nine stretching exercises to release muscle tension. He recommends "The Held 9 in 90" routine not only for driving but also for those who spend much of their working day at a desk or, worse, at a computer.

"Of all the (treatment methods) we have, if I could use only one, I would take stretching," he says.

After watching a demonstration by Held, I tried his stretches before and after my least-favorite drive: the Costa Mesa Freeway, from one end to the other, at 5 p.m. on a weekday.

I must admit I felt a little silly bending and stretching in a parking lot before I got behind the wheel.

Mine was a typical reaction, Held says: "A lot of people say, 'I don't want to look foolish; I don't want anybody to think I'm crazy.' Well what's more important?"

He admitted, however, that once when he was in the middle of a bent-over stretch, a concerned passer-by walked up and asked whether he was all right.

But by the time I was halfway home, I realized my shoulders and neck were not nearly as tense as they usually are. The traffic was more stop than go, nothing unusual for that time of day. As I drove down the exit ramp, I noticed I did not have the headache that usually overtakes me by then.

Still, when I got home, I went inside (lest the neighbors think I was weird) to repeat the exercises.

Here they are:

* Overhead stretch. Clasp hands overhead with fingers interlocked. Turn them so palms face up. Stretch arms over head as far as comfortably possible. Holding this position, relax a moment, then stretch further. Relax again, then stretch further again. The sequence of stretching and relaxing is repeated three times.

* Secretary stretch. Hold arms in front of you at a 45-degree angle with fingers interlocked, palms outward. Stretch, moving shoulders forward as far as they will go comfortably. Relax, stretch, relax and stretch again. This stretch can also be done in the car with the hands at a different angle, over the steering wheel, but only if you are stopped at a light or in some other situation in which you can safely let go of the steering wheel for several seconds.

* Roll shoulders back. Interlock fingers behind back. Stretch, rolling shoulders back as far as comfortably possible. Stretch, relax, stretch, relax and stretch again.

* Side lean. Place hands behind head, interlocking fingers. Lean to side, bending at the waist, as far as you can go comfortably, using gravity to assist you. Relax and allow yourself to drop a little more, then relax and drop even more. Repeat with other side.

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