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May 08, 2007

Stuck in traffic? Squeeze in these simple exercises

The average American spends at least an hour a day in his or her car -- and probably doesn't think of it as a place for physical activity. But those long commutes, maddening traffic jams and endless carpools for the kids can provide a surprising opportunity to tone those muscles and, maybe, relieve a little stress.

Besides, drivers (and passengers) focused on tightening the muscles while waiting for a red light to change probably aren't snacking, another favorite pastime.

Car exercises aren't a substitute for the minimum 30 minutes of daily activity, such as brisk walking, advised for all adults. Workouts in the car are isometric, so they don't challenge the heart and cardiovascular system. They must also be done with common sense so as not to distract from driving.

But these simple exercises can help strengthen core muscles that protect the back. They can tighten pelvic floor muscles to prevent incontinence and increase sexual pleasure. They can relieve stress by loosening neck and shoulder muscles and can improve posture.

"Instead of sitting around and doing nothing while you're driving, you can at least do a couple of things that can give you more energy and revitalize you," says Canadian physiotherapist Maureen Hagan, who has just been named fitness instructor of the year by IDEA Health & Fitness Assn., an organization for professionals.

Hagan has developed exercises for her clients to do in the car and uses them herself to help stay alert on long drives. The beauty of these exercises is that they can also be done at a desk. Some are even discreet enough to do at meetings.

"I have to bite my tongue a lot in meetings," Hagan says. So she uses these exercises to keep her from saying things she might later regret. "They relax my body and my mind," she says.

Here's how to turn tedious commutes, traffic jams and hours spent at your desk into exercise opportunities. Except where noted, try to do these exercises three to five times about every half an hour or so. As Hagan says, "You don't have to just go to the gym to get some really good benefits."

* Start at the top. Counteract the driver's slump (which also occurs at your
desk) with a posture check. Keep your eyes on the road. Sit up straight, trying to "grow an inch" out of your seat by bringing your shoulders back. Lift your head so that your upper spine is erect and in more of a straight line. Retract your chin so that your ears are directly in line with your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds while breathing in and out.

* Open your heart. Roll your shoulders up and then back while holding the steering wheel. (At your desk, let your arms and hands follow.) Gently pull your shoulder blades down and back toward your tailbone. "This movement helps reawaken those middle back muscles," Hagan says. It also helps loosen shoulder muscles, which tighten with stress.

* Let your navel kiss your spine. Tighten your abdominal muscles to scoop up your belly and pull in your waistline so that your navel moves toward your spine. "This takes the stress off the lower, lumbar spine," Hagan says.

* Grab a ticket. No, not a traffic ticket, and don't use your hands for this.
Imagine that you have a winning lottery ticket. Grasp it and hold it tightly between your cheeks while counting to 10. "And I'm not talking about your face,"
Hagan says. "You will get rich in posture even if you are not winning the lottery." Doing this exercise helps counter the numbness in the large gluteal muscles in your posterior that occurs from prolonged sitting, whether in the car or at your desk. She also advises men to remove their wallets from their back pants pockets because sitting on them can add to the numbness and increase the risk of painful sciatica.

* Grip the wheel. Clench as tightly as possible, then release. At the same time, try to relax your shoulders and sit up straight. Repeat 30 times in about a minute. "Most people don't realize how hard they are gripping the wheel,"
Hagan says. "This helps them relax and is also good for stress management."

* Work your pelvic floor. With age, added pounds and inactivity, the pelvic floor muscles grow limp. That increases the risk of both urinary and fecal incontinence. Do Kegel exercises throughout the day to counteract. Without using your derriere, draw up your pelvic muscles "from the ground floor to first floor," Hagan says. "If you can, pull in your bellybutton. They work best together."

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