If you're like many of the vacationers who hit the highway during summer, you likely see highway rest stops as necessary inconveniences -- places to zip through as quickly as possible en route to your destination. But by doing so, you're missing a prime opportunity to relax, rejuvenate, and refuel aching bodies and musty minds.
Using rest stops wisely can vastly increase alertness, reduce stress, and make everyone's trip safer -- as well as more enjoyable, says Dr. Thomas E. Dietz, an emergency room physician at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital in Hood River, Oregon. The next time you spot a rest area sign, pull over and make the most of these highway oases with the following eight suggestions.
1. Give your body and brain a break. Instead of focusing on the most direct route to the restrooms when you emerge from your vehicle, get everyone out of the car and take a 5-minute hike around the rest stop. "A short walk around the rest area, many of which have lovely landscaping, helps my children work out their wiggles from being car seat bound," says Susan Moser, a Cincinnati-area performing arts school owner.
Make sure your brain gets a change of scenery, too. See how many types of trees or flowers you can identify. Give out a quarter to the first person who spots a robin, or seagull, or salamander. Just get your mind off the road.
2. Loosen up. Blood clot formation in the legs -- known as deep vein thrombosis -- is more of a concern to airline passengers on long flights. But better to be safe than sorry. "If you get out and walk every hour or two it shouldn't be an issue," says Dietz. A backache is a more common condition affecting car travelers. "Stretches for the lower back and legs are probably most useful since lumbar strain can occur after long car trips," says Dietz.
Another good way to loosen up (and perk up) is to get the blood flowing. Keep a flying disc or football in the trunk for a quick game of catch with the kids or dog.
3. Get some shut-eye. Sleepy drivers are eight times more likely to be in a car crash than other drivers, reports a 2002 study in the British Medical Journal. If you're fighting off fatigue, a rest stop is a good place to do something about it. Fifteen to 20 minutes of shut-eye can help increase alertness (although a longer nap may leave you groggier for up to 20 minutes afterward). Set your watch alarm for a quarter hour and take a catnap.
4. Have everyone hit the head. Yes, it's irritating when the kids are hollering that they have to use the bathroom -- again -- even though you stopped a half an hour ago. But it's worth stopping as soon as possible. According to the American Urological Association, a full bladder is very prone to injury, even in relatively minor crashes, because it can rupture when forced against the seat belt.
And insist that everyone wash with soap and water. If you don't, your hands can come out of a restroom with 200 million more bacteria than they entered with. Use a paper towel to open the door on the way out, too. Door handles are usually coated with microscopic bugs.
5. Pick healthful snacks. "Eating loads of high-calorie junk food isn't a good idea when you're going to be sitting the majority of time and not burning off calories," says Heidi Reichenberger, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Heavy or sugary foods also lead to increased sleepiness and sluggishness behind the wheel. Healthful snacks, on the other hand, can help keep you alert. "You'll avoid those drastic highs and lows associated with sugary foods," explains Reichenberger.
Wheat crackers with peanut butter, apple slices, string cheese, baby carrots, and nonrefrigerated pudding cups are all good choices on the road. If you arrive at the rest stop to find you've already devoured the contents of your cooler, choose nuts, trail mix, or granola bars from the vending machine. Avoid the candy bars, snack cakes, and chips.
6. Prepare for the next leg of the trip. Driver distraction plays a factor in about a quarter of all crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Anything you can do at the rest stop to reduce distractions while driving is time well spent. Organize your CDs and insert the ones you want in the player before you get back on the road. The American Automobile Association points out that the mere act of inserting a disc while driving increases the likelihood of a crash by six times.
Talking on a cell phone quadruples the risk of a collision. Smoking and eating while at the wheel also make driving more dangerous. So keep your phone off and return calls while you're at the rest stop. And finish your snacks and smokes there too.
7. Do a final check. Before heading back on the road, do a head count, says Dietz. Sounds commonsensical, but kids do occasionally get forgotten at rest stops and other locations in all the hustle and bustle of a trip.
8. Seat belt safety. Kids also have a tendency to fuss with their seat belts and arrange pillows to make themselves more comfortable. That's understandable, but unsafe. "It is critically important for the seat belt to be working properly," says Dietz. It should sit across the hips (a position that will protect the aforementioned bladder, too), not across the lower abdomen.
Don't allow children to pad the seat belt straps with pillows or blankets, says Dietz. And make sure their seat backs are upright. Otherwise, they can "submarine" out under the seat belt in a quick stop or crash, resulting in head and neck injuries. If the kids want to sleep, they need to do so sitting up with a pillow against the window for comfort.
Now you're all set for the next leg of your journey, which should go nice and smooth until you reach -- you guessed it -- the next rest stop.