The answer is, it can be excruciating. Driving may not seem physically exhausting, but consider the feeling of taking an eight-hour road trip every day, except using an industrial vehicle with a steering wheel the size of a laundry spinner, that's logged not thirty or fifty thousand miles but a several hundred thousand. Oddly, the activity I feel it most compares to is treading water: you may want to rest, but you can't. You have to keep going.
I used to ride a certain bus in every day and noticed how rude the driver was with the passengers. Specifically, how short he was with them. Brusque. It's his ship, I guess. I noticed it, until I one day noticed its absence in his attitude. He was downright chipper. It was the same guy, but… what had changed?
In chatting with him I discovered he had at long last gotten what he'd been wanting for so many years: back surgery. It was like night and day, he said. He wasn't in continuous stabbing pain for eight hours a day anymore. The discs in his spine were finally fine, and he could smile with the folks and go back to being how he probably always was before all this started.
Come this July I'll have driven Metro buses for ten years. When I started, King County had fitness experts who would talk to operators and give them specialized advice on how to set up their seats and so on. Those ladies are long gone, and although operators have always talked about torn rotator cuffs, herniated discs, and knee surgery, they do so more now.
I'm no authority and the suggestions below are unscientific, but they do come on the heels of a decade of experience.
This is what has worked for me.
You can't have a good time at this job if you're in pain. These are a few tips I've picked up along the way from various professionals that you, fellow bus driver, commercial vehicle operator, fellow office or other sedentary job-possessing friend, might find useful. I owe much of my happiness to those who have taught me the information below, and the least I can do is pass it along.
For suggestions regarding customer service, click here.
On the Coach
Setting up the seat:
- Thighs should be horizontal. Lower legs should be at a forty-five degree angle from the ground. Upper arms should be vertical, and forearms should be parallel to the floor.
- At its closest point, the steering wheel should be one fist away from your thighs, and two fists away from your belly button.
- Tilt the seat as far forward/downward as possible. You don't want the seat's front lip cutting off circulation behind your knees. Wedge-shaped seat cushions can help with this. Speaking of which:
- Use a seat cushion. The best are those which have a hole where your tailbone would be, such that the nerves at the bottom of your spine are not getting crushed all day. It makes eight hours feel like four hours, believe me. They also help with minimizing whole-body vibration.
- Don't be afraid to setup slightly differently, regularly. Throw all the above slightly out the window– the point is to minimize repetitive body motions.
- When turning, do the hand over hand method, or the shuffle method. Hold the wheel at eight, four, or eight and four.
- Never touch the top half of the wheel (except perhaps to stretch out on it at red lights). Doing so overextends your shoulders.
- For Heaven's sake, don't do one-handed palms of your turns. I know it looks cool. It isn't.
- Let the bus begin moving before turning the steering wheel– less resistance this way.
- Be mindful to not drive with your wrist; hold the wheel with your hand instead. Try to keep your fingers outside the wheel.
Regarding the back:
- Periodically, arch your back at a red light, puffing out your tummy– just a minor movement, to let your body know those muscles are still there.
- Lumbar support– this is critical. You could be a cheapskate like me and use a couple columns of duck-taped paper towels, or try my experiment (pictured above) of using a lunchbox… I'm told they sell things for this too! In a pinch, throw a fist behind your lower back and notice how even that makes a difference.
- When cycling the lift, turn your entire body so you and both your legs face the door. Note how much better it feels than twisting your lower back to the right.
Regarding the legs:
- When accelerating or braking, the sole of your right foot should be placed entirely on the pedals. Don't let your heel rest on the floor. Why? It helps more evenly distribute pressure through your foot; a heel on the floor means you're doing everything with basically the ball of your foot, and this leads to lower back pain and eventually sciatica.
- When moving your foot from the gas (or power pedal on a trolley) to the brake and vice versa, move your entire foot to the other pedal, instead of angling it and destroying your knee in the process. Your body likes when your feet are pointed forward, not at an angle. The newer coaches have the pedals angled in a way that makes no sense; try to ignore this, pretending the pedals are more straightly aligned.
- The same idea is true regarding your left foot's activation of the turn signals. This is less intuitive, but build a habit of moving your whole leg to go from turn signal to turn signal or in between, rather than keeping your heel in one place.
- On coaches with "paddles" (8000, 6/7200, 3700, & Purple bus), realize how sensitive they are– you may be pressing harder than you need to.
- On coaches with turn "buttons" (everything else), press them with slightly different parts of your left foot, to equalize the distribution of pressure.
- Remember to use the hill holder (or E-brake) at red lights, zones, etc, to minimize overusing your right leg/knee.
When lifting items, do so with your legs, not your back.
This will sound meaninglessly zen, but you operators will understand: Let the bus drive itself. Just guide it along. The easiest way to do this is by relaxing your pace. You'll notice you can put much less pressure into all your movements than you think, and the cumulative positive impact this has on your body is noticeable.
On a break
- Walk around inside the coach at terminals. Why is standing for three hours a day more valuable for your body than running ten marathons? You're getting stagnant blood flowing again and restarting your metabolism.
- Touch your toes while standing, or try to. It's not about reaching your toes, but stretching that back out.
- Do a parallel arm shoulder stretch. Bend forward slightly to emphasize the stretch into your upper back.
- Standing on or near the yellow line, facing forward, grab the two stanchions on either side of you which allow you to lean deeply forward into your arms, such that your arms are extending behind you as they grab those bars. This opens up your shoulders. Doesn't that feel good?
- Do lunges up and down the aisle.
- With both hands, grab a stanchion at belly-button height, with your feet positioned at the base of the stanchion. Stretch your body back and out, straightening your arms and legs. This will feel best in the shoulders.
- If it feels comfortable, do what in yoga is called triangle pose. It involves every part of the body and helps with those hamstrings.
- Stretch those calves out.
- You'll notice tight points in your shoulders that are too deep to stretch. For these, try something like a Thera Cane or other handheld back massager cane. Mine is not as fancy, but it works wonders. Don't have one? Rub your back into a stanchion to get rid of some of those knots. I bet you do this already.
- Explore a few rudimentary wrist stretches. Variations of these can be done at red lights!
- Do not sit during your breaks. You do enough of that already. Stand, or lie down.
Regarding the rotator cuff:
Three stretches of use. You can do them all within one minute, and it'll change the next hour.
- Form a diamond shape with your arms above your head, elbows out, hands touching. Maintaining this, touch your hands to the overhead horizontal bar that runs the length of the coach. Push in, and lean in beyond it with your body.
- Grab a stanchion with your right arm, and while holding it turn your body to the left as far as it'll go. Repeat the opposite for the other side of the body.
- Extend both arms out fully to either side, palms up. Find two parallel vertical stanchions (likely on either side of the aisle) you can lean these extended arms into for resistance.
Regarding the legs:
- Lower back pain might really be a leg matter. Most sciatic nerve issues are compounded and exacerbated by tight hamstrings. Stretch your hamstrings. Easy hamstring stretches here; back pain-specific hamstring material here.
- Leg squats; strengthen the muscles surrounding your knees. I do these at home while holding weights, but of course they're doable on the vehicle too.
Regarding the back:
- Lie on your stomach, and push up with your arms into a reverse arch back stretch. Doesn't that feel good? The cat stretch, a lighter version of this, can be done on the bus as well.
- Strengthen your core with sit-ups or crunches. This also strengthens your back.
- Above we mention stretches for the rotator cuff, so those muscles don't get too tight; here are exercises for strengthening the muscles surrounding your rotator cuff, so it doesn't tear. Instructional video here (4 mins). Use small weights only for these little muscles; shoulders are fragile, and bodybuilding's not the point here.
- You're lying on your tummy. Stretch out your arms perpendicular to your body, and, starting with one arm only, make a thumbs-up signal and point the thumb directly toward the ceiling. Maintaining that hand position, raise your arm a foot off the ground or so. Repeat– ten, thirty times, as you like. Eventually, do so while holding a book. What's the point? You use a lot of muscles when steering. This muscle is underdeveloped, but developing it will take some heat off the muscles surrounding it. The point isn't to beef this tiny muscle up (no need to do this lift with weights), but to build it up just enough so the others aren't as overworked.
- Wrist curls.
- Walk a lot. It engages your whole body, and it's low impact. A 400-pound friend of mine lost 200 pounds just by walking everywhere. Walk to your road relief.
- Consider yoga, whether it's a class up the street with a friend or a YouTube video in your living room.
- I find weight best managed by controlling intake, rather than increasing workout routines. It's certainly easier. Exercise is obviously a good idea, but it isn't actually necessary to lose weight.
- Portions. France and Italy eat nothing but carbs and fat, and they all look great. Lightening meals will help you feel less tired; your body doesn't have to work so hard to digest all that stuff.
- You've heard it all before- think about fruits and veggies. Although all foods contain some level of carbs, fat or sugar (the first two of which you really do need), be mindful of quantities.
- Completely eliminate fast food and pop. Just do it.
- Cut processed sugar to a minimum, and think carefully about red meat, not only because of weight but because it loosens your skin over time (yes, vanity can be a motive for positive change too...)!
- Think about sources besides meat- especially red meat- for protein (tofu, eggs spinach; more here) and iron (dark chocolate, unsweetened dried fruit, and more). Consider fish as an alternative to other meats.
- Consistent snacking urges? I'm right there with you. You won't go wrong with fruit and nuts.
- Start eating kale. This is the west coast, and everyone's doing it. For once there's a popular trend that's actually good for you.
See you on the road!