Commuting can be a pain in the neck -- not to mention the back, knees and heart.

Ask 65-year-old Ben Hornstein, and he'll say commuting is bad for health. "It really taxes the mind and the body," he said.

The Concord resident has been commuting to the FedEx Freight Service Center in Stockton for seven years. Before that, he made a daily trek to San Jose and back.

The nearly 150-mile round trip between Concord and Stockton can take two to three hours one way, sometimes keeping Hornstein in his Toyota Camry for six hours a day.

"What bothers me is my knees and legs; that's what really gets you sometimes," Hornstein said. "I've got some arthritis, and if I stay in one place too long, it's painful."

Hornstein is one of the 3.3 million Americans who "stretch commute" more than 50 miles to work, according to a 2004 U.S. Department of Transportation study.

"It affects people's health and family life," said commute management expert Dave Rizzo of Fullerton. "In the winter, there are some people who never see their house in the daylight. It gets to you after a while. It's very depressing."

Called "Dr. Roadmap," Rizzo is the author of "Survive the Drive: How to Beat Freeway Traffic in Southern California." He says studies show that stretch commutes can lead to mental and physical problems, including high blood pressure and increased heart rate and stress levels.

Long-distance commuting can also contribute to back and neck pain, short-term memory loss, a decreased tolerance of frustration, lack of sleep and an increase in illness and illness-related absences from work.

"Anything over 18 miles is going to put some stress on you, and the average commute to work in California is 17 miles," Rizzo said. "Half the people in your community are in the stress zone."

And that built-up frustration can easily carry over, affecting one's job or family life, Rizzo said.

"Sometimes you're not in the best of moods when you get out of the car," Hornstein said.

So, if there's time, he likes to take a few minutes to relax before starting the workday. "When I get to work, I find my hands are gripping the (steering) wheel so tight from driving," he said. "I have to take a minute to loosen up because my hands are glued to the wheel. It's terrible."

Mardi Drew, owner of Relax the Back stores in Walnut Creek and Pleasanton, says many commuters come in seeking to alleviate pain while on the go.

Commuting may not be a catalyst for back and neck problems, but it can exacerbate existing conditions, Drew said.

"When you're stuck in traffic and your car isn't moving, it's just like sitting in a chair for long periods of time," Drew said. "Then you add to that the motion of acceleration and braking and swaying through turns and the vibration of the road, and these movements are not normal to the sitting position."

Among the most popular products for commuters are seat cushions and back rests that offer lumbar support.

"The way most car seats are designed, your knees are up higher than your lower back, so people tend to slouch," Drew said. "And that puts even more pressure on the lower back."

Items such as the Travel Lite Backrest Companion have memory foam to cushion and absorb road vibrations, and they can be customized to fit the curve of a commuter's spine for optimal support.

"It's about posture and making sure the natural curve of the spine is maintained," Drew said.

Commuter Rachel Slatten soon may be in the market for a lumbar support. The San Francisco resident is new to long-distance commuting, but she's already feeling the strain.

In August, the first-year teacher started driving more than 100 miles a day for her new job at Mission Elementary School in Antioch.

"I've definitely noticed it already in my shoulders, neck and arms," she said, mimicking her grip on the steering wheel. "They get really tight."

It takes the 26-year-old about an hour to get to work, but if she doesn't leave Antioch by 4 p.m., she has to wait until after 7 p.m. to hit the road. Otherwise, it will take her three hours to get home.

"I have to be in the car by 6 a.m. I wake up, go to work, go home and go to bed," Slatten said. "Then I do it all again the next day. It really does affect your life."

Reach Kelli Phillips at 925-945-4745 or kphillips@bayareanewsgroup.com.

tips

Tips to relieve commute stress:

  • Leave early. If you're not in a hurry, you won't stress out about that long traffic light or railroad crossing. If you get to work early, use that time to attend to personal business such as balancing your checkbook, writing a letter or making a phone call.

  • Eat a healthful snack before hitting the road to keep your blood sugar up, which keeps you alert.

  • Create a pleasant environment. Roll up the windows, turn on the heater or air conditioner, buy nice seat covers, a cushion or a lumbar support. Be comfortable.

  • Listen to the radio, an iPod, CD or tape. Keep the music mellow.

  • Try to maintain an easygoing attitude. Quit thinking about the destination. If there's traffic, don't tell yourself you'll be late.

  • Take a slow, deep breath.

  • Don't take it personally if another driver cuts you off.

  • Carpool. Studies show carpooling decreases stress, and, at a minimum, you can vent traffic frustrations to your passenger.

    Source: Dave Rizzo, "Dr. Roadmap"