Throughout history, man has attempted to conquer air travel—often with disastrous results. But thanks to the engineering ingenuity of the Wright brothers, it’s only been over the past century that humans have successfully traveled by air. The good news is that modern air travel can really bring the world closer together. However, the bad news is that if you have a job requiring frequent air travel, it could cause additional stress that can potentially derail all your hard work toward a healthy lifestyle.
Whether you’re flying to make it to that important meeting, visit family this holiday season or take a vacation somewhere warm during the winter months, spending a day in the air can, at best, be arduous and leave your body feeling physically exhausted. And that’s if everything goes right and stays on schedule. Adding some physical activity at the airport or mobility movements once you get to your destination can help reduce the stress of air travel and help you prepare for your next proper workout. If you are a road warrior who takes your fitness program seriously, it is important to know what you can do to minimize the stress of travel. Just a few simple strategies can help you to feel great and be ready for your next hard workout after a long travel day.
As a fitness educator who has traveled frequently to teach workshops and speak at conferences around the globe, I am all too familiar with the trials and tribulations of frequent air travel. According to my MileagePlus account on United, I have traveled more than 650,000 miles since 2010. In accumulating those miles, I have developed various strategies to add more physical activity to a day (or more) of air travel. For you road warriors, jet setters and holiday travelers out there, here are eight tips that I follow during my travels to minimize the physical stress from hurtling 35,000 feet in the air seated in an aluminum tube.
Tip 1: Reserve an aisle seat
For active people, the biggest downside of air travel is being stuck in an uncomfortable seat for hours on end. Domestic flights within the United States often use smaller planes with only one aisle. Therefore, it’s important to reserve an aisle seat so you can easily get up during the flight to move and stretch your legs. (Pro tip: You will want to wait until after the drink and food service before you get up to move around because if you block the progress of the drink cart, EVERYONE gets a little grumpy.) International flights often use larger planes with two aisles. One nice thing about the larger planes is that there is space around the restrooms and midplane emergency exits that allow for some standing stretches.
Tip 2: Stretch out those hips
When seated for an extended period, the tissues, specifically the ligaments, tendons and muscles around the iliofemoral joints of the hips, can become pressed together, creating adhesions that restrict normal joint motion. Moving the hips in multiple directions can help keep these joints mobile and reduce the chance that the layers of tissue become compressed against one another.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and hands on the sides of both hips (at the pelvic bone).
- Shift your hips left and right for 30 to 45 seconds. Then make circles with your hips moving in one direction for 30 to 45 seconds before moving in the other direction for the same amount of time.
- Finally, press your hips forward and backward (focus on moving from your pelvis instead of your spine) for 30 to 45 seconds.
This is an easy move to do in the aisle on smaller planes. However, you should know that your seat neighbors will look at you a little funny. But I’ll take that over a muscle adhesion any day! (Note: As you stand to stretch or move about the cabin to reduce muscle tightness, please keep in mind to ALWAYS obey the instructions of the flight attendants. It is their job is to ensure the safety of all the passengers and it is a federal crime, meaning you can get in a lot of trouble if you make their job more difficult.)
Tip 3: Pack a tennis ball
One fitness-related item I ALWAYS carry with me is a tennis ball, which serves two important functions: It can be used to massage your foot while seated and as a grip strengthener/stress reducer. Roll the arch of your foot over the ball and you will appreciate the feeling of stress reduction. Squeezing a tennis ball in your hand can strengthen your grip while reducing stress when the pilot announces it’s still a 20-minute lineup for takeoff at ORD (Chicago O’Hare) or IAH (Houston Airport).
Tip 4: Make the most of your airport time
While at the airport, either before takeoff or during a layover, it’s important to move around as much as possible. Use the opportunity to stretch your legs by walking around the concourse. Remember, you’ll get enough sitting on the airplane, so stand while you’re able. One of the best things I ever did was to invest in an airline club membership. This allows me to leave my bags as I walk around the club. In addition, the club offers higher tables that make perfect standing desks. (Many airports have put higher tables in the gate areas, so it is possible to use those for a standing desk, too, but it’s not possible (nor is it a good idea) to leave your bags unattended and stroll around, and that’s why having a club membership is definitely worth the investment.)
Tip 5: Take the stairs—luggage and all
When walking around the terminal, skip the escalators and take the stairs. It might not seem like taking the stairs will make that much of a difference, but every bit of activity adds up. I can’t tell you how many times I see other fit-looking people taking the stairs while people on the escalators just stand and stare. (Bonus points for putting your roll-on on your shoulder as you climb; additional bonus points for switching shoulders halfway up—this is an easy game to play if you fly United and often transition from the B to C concourses when switching planes at O’Hare. It also can be played at the international terminal in SFO (San Francisco International Airport) and while checking in to the main United Club at IAH. Just be considerate of those around you and avoid hitting someone as you heft your bag up or change shoulders.)
Tip 6: Skip the sugary comfort foods
One of the biggest challenges to traveling via airport is the readily available high-calorie and sugar-laden comfort foods. Food that is high in sugar can elevate levels of your feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which is why they’re readily available in a stressful environment like an airport. Due to the fact that many frequent travelers are becoming more health conscious, healthier options like salads, fruits and baked—as opposed to fried—foods have become more available. After a stressful trip through traffic and the hassle of security, it can be tempting to chow down on a burger and fries, but think of how much better you’ll feel nourishing your body with a salad or fruit bowl instead. One thing I do is to pack a few protein bars in my carry-on so I can snack on them if I get hungry.
Tip 7: Find a hotel with a well-equipped fitness center
When choosing a hotel, always look for ones with a good fitness center, or, even better, a health club attached to the hotel. If a health club is part of a hotel, it is standard for hotel guests to have club access. Besides having all the equipment to get a proper workout, a well-stocked fitness center is likely to have a filtered water cooler so you can fill up your water bottle(s) without having to spend an arm and a leg on bottled water at the gift shop.
Tip 8: Do some mobility moves
Once at the hotel, whether in your room or the fitness center, it’s a good idea to do a few mobility exercises for your hips and spine. Below are a few of my favorite moves. You also can watch them in action here, where I demonstrate the stretches in a hotel room during a recent trip to China.
Quadruped Thoracic Rotation
- Place your knees under your hips, your left hand under your left shoulder and your right hand behind your head.
- Lower your right elbow and shoulder toward your left arm, then pull it back.
- Push your left hand into the floor as you pull back on your right shoulder.
- Perform 10 to 12 reps on each side for two sets.
Type 1 Thoracic Rotation
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Reach your right arm over your head toward the left side of your body at the same time as you reach across your body with your left arm.
- This move rotates and flexes the spine, which can help enhance normal motion.
- Do two sets of 12 to 14 reps on each side of the body.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Move your right leg back and rotate it inward so that your right foot is pointing toward your left.
- Keep your right heel pressed into the ground and your spine long as you lean back with your right arm overhead.
- Contract your left glutes as you lean back. This will increase the stretch into the front of your hip.
- Hold 45 to 60 seconds, then switch legs.
Tip: Taking the time to stretch your hip flexors during the flight can help reduce back soreness from a day of travel and can easily be done while standing by one of the plane’s lavatories.
- Kneel with your right knee under your right hip and your left leg rotated to the left side of your body so that your left knee is pointed in the 9 o’clock direction.
- Press your right knee into the floor as you lean into your left hip and rotate to your right.
- Perform 10 to 12 rotations on each hip for two sets.
Kneeling Thoracic Rotation
- Kneel on both knees. Keep your hands by your head and spine as long as possible.
- Rotate to your left and drop your left elbow down toward the ground.
- Perform five to eight repetitions to the left side, then rotate to the right for the same number of repetitions; complete two sets.
Whether you are a road warrior who logs tens of thousands of miles or only make one or two trips during the holiday season, staying active during the process can make a big difference in how you feel once you get to your final location.
Photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM, Unsplash