Traveling to exotic locations around the world isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. If you’re dedicated to staying healthy and fit, good workout advice can make the trip less stressful. The joys of travel include the following:
- Long hours sitting in an uncomfortable seat (with limited space front, back, left and right)
- Feelings of fatigue
- Inability to get quality rest/sleep
- Uncomfortable climate (dry, stale air and temperatures that are either too hot or too cold)
- Small bathrooms (often with unpleasant smells)
- Meals that are rarely “satisfying” (too small, limited choices or annoyingly expensive)
- Entertainment selections that may be decent (but entertainment equipment that may not work or sound that isn’t quite right)
- Being disconnected from the rest of the world (no cell phone, no emails and no internet)
If you’re used to being active and have made fitness an important part of your life, long distance travel can feel like being locked in a cage. To the human body, an aircraft represents an artificial environment, and our bodies undergo physiological reactions to extreme conditions like air pressure and elevation. These physiological reactions to flying for extended periods of time include:
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
- Altitude discomfort
In a perfect world, travelers could move around in a big open space in the middle of the plane and get physically active. But … we all know that there is barely enough room to take your jacket off without running the risk of punching your fellow passengers in the face. You would think this is only the case for domestic flights but it is a reality for those flying on the largest planes designed specifically for long distance travel and overseas flights. To avoid the negative effects of flying for long periods of time (to avoid setbacks to your fitness routine) one needs to be “creative” and have an effective “plan”.
During flight, the moisture content of the air in an aircraft cabin ranges from 1 to 15 percent humidity. Bear in mind that the average moisture content of the air in the Sahara Desert is about 20 percent. This means that during flight the moisture is released from our skin and lungs at a rate of 2 to 4 ounces per hour. More than 70 percent of the body is made up of water. It is vital for survival. Symptoms of dehydration include: nausea, thirst, exhaustion, muscle and joint aches, anginal pain, migraine, restlessness, confusion, paranoia and anxiety.
- Drink plenty of fluids prior to taking off.
- Drink 8 ounces of water for each hour you are in the air.
- Avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks (which promote dehydration).
- Drink plenty of fluids after you get off the plane.
Avoiding Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that develops as a result of being immobile for long periods of time. If you sit immobile for 4 hours or more your risk of getting a blood clot called a venous thromboembolism (VTE) doubles. VTE occurs because blood ceases to flow or move in your veins when you’re seated. VTE usually leads to DVT, which is when the blood clot occurs in a deep vein, typically in the lower part of your leg. DVT can cause pain and swelling, but becomes life threatening if part of the clot breaks off and travels to your lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism and can block your blood flow (which can be fatal). Factors that increase your risk of VTE include:
- Duration of the flight
- Being very tall or very short (over 6’3″ or under 5’3″)
- Using oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
- Certain blood disorders that increase your clotting tendency
To avoid the debilitating effects of DVT (and potential setbacks to your fitness routine) there are several actions you can take to keep the body moving while flying at 30,000 feet.
Keep the Joints Moving and Active
- Walk up and down the aisles during the flight. Make one trip once every 1 to 2 hours.
- Complete a set of 10 to 15 squats (full range of motion) during the flight. Complete one set once every 1 to 2 hours.
- Stretch the common muscle groups that tighten up in an upright seated position (i.e. pectorals, abdominals, hip flexors and quadriceps). Complete as needed to alleviate tightness.
- Stretches to complete during the flight include:
Keep the Muscles Engaged and Working
- Maintain good posture when you are awake during the flight (be conscious of this as much as possible). This will help to avoid lower back pain and fatigue as a result of the long flight. Proper seated neutral position consists of the following:
- Head is level, or bent slightly forward, forward facing, and balanced. Generally it is in-line with the torso.
- Shoulders are relaxed and upper arms hang normally at the side of the body.
- Elbows stay in close to the body and are bent between 90 and 120 degrees.
- Feet are fully supported by the floor or a footrest may be used (if available).
- If possible, back is fully supported with appropriate lumbar support when sitting vertical or leaning back slightly.
- Thighs and hips are supported by a well-padded seat and parallel to the floor.
- Knees are about the same height as the hips with the feet slightly forward.
- Isometric exercises for the upper and lower body are great options for a cramped airplane with limited room to move. For each exercise listed below, hold the contraction for about 6 seconds and complete 5 to 10 repetitions. Don’t hold your breath during the contraction, and focus the contraction on the working muscles only.
- Isometric Exercises for the Abdominals and Lower Body
- In a seated position, tighten your abdominal muscles as you press your lower back into your seat.
- In a seated position, place your hands on top of your seat for balance and control. Keeping your knee bent, raise your foot from the floor and your knee from the seat and hold it in the raised position. Repeat for the other leg. For a more intense exercise, lift both legs together. Don’t arch your back, and don’t do this exercise if you feel any strain on your back.
- In a seated position, place your hands on top of your seat for balance and control. Straighten one leg out in front of you, lifting it slightly off the seat.
- In either a standing or seated position, tighten the muscles in your buttocks (glutes).
- From a standing position, do a shallow knee bend. Keep your back straight and don’t let your knees extend out in front of your toes. You can mimic this exercise from a seated position by pushing against the floor with your feet as you tighten the muscles you would use to rise up from your seat.
- From a standing position, rise up on the balls of your feet.
- Kegel Exercises – tighten the muscles of the pelvic floor and hold (pelvic floor muscles are those used to stop the flow of urine).
- Isometric Exercises for the Upper Body
- While seated, place the palms of your hands on top of your thighs. Press down.
- Fold your arms in front of your chest with your elbows lifted out in front of you. Grasp your left upper arm with your right hand, and pull toward the right while you resist with your left arm. Repeat on the other side.
- With your elbows bent and out to the side, place your palms together in front of your chest. Your fingertips should point toward the ceiling. Push your palms together.
- With your elbows bent and out to the side, use your fingers to lock your hands together in front of your chest. Attempt to pull your hands apart.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together by bringing your shoulders down and back.
- Isometric Exercises for the Abdominals and Lower Body
Avoiding Altitude Discomfort
During long flights, aircraft cabins are typically pressurized to 8,000 feet above sea level, which can cause a lot of discomfort throughout the body. Symptoms include muscular discomfort, fatigue, malaise (sickness or uneasiness) and ear, nose and throat discomfort. Recommendations include a combination of the solutions for dehydration and DVT:
- Drinking lots of fluids (no caffeine or alcohol).
- Moving around as much as possible.
Workout Advice to Maintain Fitness on Long Flights
Completing your normal workout on a commercial flight across international waters is not going to happen. For the 10+ hours that you are stranded on an airplane, your goal should be to take care of your body and avoid the fatigue and circulation issues that can cause a negative result in your workouts once you land. With a good plan and conscious effort you can effectively maintain a healthy body by effectively hydrating, maintaining good posture (when you are awake) and incorporating focused muscular movements during your flight.