Neurologist-Approved Tips for a Successful Family Roadtrip

With summer coming, lots of families are preparing to hop in the car for epic road trips. In fact, AAA says 97% of summer trips this year are going to be road trips. Whether you’re headed to the beach, the mountains or to see family and friends – it’s a great way to get away. 

I speak from personal experience on this one. My family and I have done some good, long car trips – the most recent one was also the most epic. My wife, two sons and I took a month-long cross country drive from Washington State to Reston, VA when I started at Virginia Spine Institute. It was a blast. We stopped in Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis, New York City, and so many other incredible and beautiful places. My wife’s favorite was the Grand Canyon. We were all blown away by the gorgeous display of nature there. She couldn’t get over the fact that the place she’d long seen in books and in calendar photos was suddenly all around us. 

Despite all the beautiful stops we made, the wonderful places we visited, and the incredibly fun things we did, my favorite time honestly was spent in the car. We were a bit cramped in our sedan and spent an average of six hours a day driving. But I found the concentrated together time with my wife and kids to be precious. 

Even so, I know these road trips aren’t always easy. The average American drives nearly three hours to get to their summer vacation destination. Add in traffic and pit stops – trips can easily become longer than expected. They can be tough on your body – causing aches, pain, soreness, and more. It can also be emotionally draining getting stuck in never-ending traffic jams and navigating where you need to go. 

You do come away with a few lessons after traveling 2,700 miles with your family. So as both a neurologist and a fellow road warrior, here are my 3 tips to a successful family summer road trip. 

Embrace the fact that road trips can be good for your brain:

As a neurologist, I care a lot about neuroplasticity – how your brain changes through growth. It’s good to push our brains to change and adapt and in fact, research shows brain training can help fight cognitive decline and dementia as we age. But the truth is – it’s not always easy to push yourself to do this kind of brain work. I say this as someone who likes routine, takes the same route to work every day, maps things out, and is a planner. 

One of my recommendations to my patients with dementia and cognitive decline and those hoping to prevent it – is to do something new or learn something new every day. We should all be doing this and a road trip is a great way to focus on that. You’re constantly taking roads never traveled, experiencing new people and places, and adapting to constantly changing situations. It’s not just summer fun. It’s good for your brain too. 

Road trips push us to be flexible and embrace new things. I found that hard in the beginning but then it got easier and easier the more I did it. Practicing this approach on a road trip is something you can bring home with you too and continue long after your vacation ends. 

Make the most of your breaks during travel to alleviate pain:

I’ve got two little kids so frequent stops are a must for them. Honestly – they ended up being really important for me and my wife too. We made it a point to stop at least every 3 hours. We’d stretch, walk around, grab a snack or meal, or visit a site. Sitting in the same position for a long period of time, unable to fully stretch your legs and back, can cause lower back tension in anyone — especially someone with pre-existing back pain. So don’t just stop when you need gas. Be intentional about building in breaks to give your back some much-needed downtime. You’ll feel better when you get to your destination. I promise. 

How to support your back and neck on your next road trip:

I also recommend putting some thought into how you’re going to be traveling to set your back and neck up for success. 

  • If you have the ability to use cruise control, opt for that so both of your feet are on the floor for a period of time. That affects your entire body’s posture in a positive way. 
  • If you’re a passenger and constantly looking at a device, try using a dashboard or headrest mount to avoid tech neck. Keep your phone or tablet at eye level – and make sure your kid passengers are too – to reduce strain on everyone’s neck and back. 
  • Invest in a few products if it will make your trip smoother. Seat cushions can help support your back, pelvis, and coccyx and can really make long trips more comfortable. Steering wheel covers can help your hands if you have arthritis and that can ease aches and pains through your arms to your shoulder and neck. Gel and memory foam pillows – the kind that wraps around your neck – can help support it if you take a nap. Many find compression socks help with blood flow too. Talk with your doctor first before trying those. 

My last tip – pack lots of snacks, have plenty of patience, and have something good to listen to. Want to learn more about health, wellness, and spine health – I recommend the Get Back to Your Life podcast  – on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Happy summer travels! 

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