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Managing Body Aches and Stiffness During Travel
By Courtenay Schurman
As we pass into our 40's and beyond, pain management sometimes becomes a more frequent (and increasingly important) part of our physical conditioning program than when we were younger. If you travel frequently either for work or for vacation (in which case, for the latter, lucky you!) you may already be familiar with the additional stiffness and discomfort that comes with long drives or flights with limited space to move around. Below, we share some travel tips for people with pre-existing aches and pains that will help you stay limber, minimize joint discomfort, and travel more comfortably.
For anything longer than 1.5 hours in the car, build in rest stops
The easiest and most common-sense tip for any long trip is to make frequent rest stops (every hour or so) to stretch your legs and move around. Families with dogs or kids do this instinctively; it might not be as obvious to business travelers on a tight time schedule. This "movement frequency" is also similar to what I recommend when people have long work days involving sitting at their desks: for every hour you spend sitting, intersperse 5 minutes of moving around time (and not all at the end of the day, though that will help too!)
Take frequent stretch breaks
Even if you break for a 5 minute coffee or rest room stop, it gives you enough time to do a full body "reach for the sky on tiptoes" stretch, bend over and touch your toes with gently bent knees, twist to the left and to the right with feet planted shoulder width apart and hands on waist or shoulders, and a few deep breaths. Allowing yourself a few minutes of gentle movement will give your spine a little reprieve from being locked into a sitting position for too long. If you can, consider even taking a brisk walk; 8-10 minutes can help combat the sleepiness you may feel from the monotony of the road and will help you stretch out the hips, hamstrings, and lower back.
If you are a passenger, include stretches while traveling in a train, bus, car seat or even the tight confines of economy class in an airplane (unless you have an extremely oversized person sitting right next to you). All four of the stretches described and demonstrated in the article, "Cubicle Calisthenics" (see Cubicle Calisthenics), can be done while sitting. Two other very simple stretches that don't require pictures include one for the lower back (while sitting, simply bend over and reach for your toes, hold for 30 seconds -- but you cannot do this while driving!!) and one for the back and rear shoulders (wrap your arms around you as though to give yourself a big hug!)
A small, very simple piece of rehabilitative equipment that you can take in a carry-on bag or backpack is a Knobby Ball, best if made of hard plastic. These are great for a) massaging stocking feet suffering from plantar fasciitis (roll the arch of the foot--especially right near the heel--around on the ball), b) placing between yourself and a hard vertical surface (tree or wall) and rolling gently against it for trigger point relief, or c) placing it on the floor or ground and rolling on top of it (hold yourself up with hands and legs if you're new to the Knobby Ball, as it's very intense) to get deep into tight hip muscles or ITB fascia when you reach your destination.
Another piece of equipment that is very easy to transport anywhere (simply pack in carry-on or ticketed luggage) is any sort of rubber resistance, such as surgical tubing, Therabands, Jump Stretch minibands or any of a wide variety of exercise tubes available on today's market. These can help you with lower back stretches, inner and outer thigh stretches, hamstring stretches and more.
Foam roller myofascial release
If you have extra space in your car, consider throwing in a half-length, round foam core roller to enable you to include a wide variety of exercises, including the two pictured here:
Lower Back Relief:
Position the foam roller at the small of the lower back and gently lean back, supporting yourself on hips and hands until you feel comfortable moving around on the roller. Try stretching the upper torso backward with foam support, then with arms supporting you, gently raise the hips and allow the roller to move upward along your spine (i.e. you're in a modified bridge pose), gently massaging any areas of tissue that are especially tight. Try turning the roller lengthwise so it is parallel to the spine, and move the body side to side across the roller to work tight areas on either side of the spine (spinal erectors).
Iliotibial Band Relief:
To get deep into tight upper hips and outer thigh myofascia, roll back from the above exercise so you can support yourself on one hand, turn onto your side so one upper and outer hip rests solidly on the roller, then bend the bottom leg slightly and support yourself with bent top leg (it provides you with the ability to move around on the roller). Gently move your body over the roller getting deep into any tight areas, then repeat on the other side.
If you happen to have a vehicle that has heated seats, USE THEM, particularly if you are going to be in a colder region of the country than you're used to. There is nothing nicer after a day of snow play or a long hike than to crank up the heat on the drive back home. Alternating the heat with ice application (later after you get home) can actually speed healing and increase blood flow to areas needing recovery. (HOWEVER, do NOT use them if you note any swelling in the hips or lower back as you want to DECREASE swelling through application of cold).
Portable electrical stimulation units
Finally, if you work with a physical therapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor, you may want to inquire about getting a recommendation for use of an interferential e-stim (electrical stimulation) device such as UltraIF Digital Sine Wave Interferential. Personal use of such a home device over the past year has resulted in going from monthly chiropractic visits for lower back flare-ups to 1 annual "birthday" visit. What's really nice about the home unit is we can take it with us in the car when we're camping on vacation or driving for long periods of time (the unit requires sitting to use!) This is definitely one distinct advantage to (or use for) sitting, if there are any good things to come from inactivity!
Do you have favorite travel strategies for keeping aches and pains at bay? Send them to us for inclusion in future newsletters!