By Pete McCall
August 26, 2019
Throughout history man vainly attempted to conquer air travel in often disastrous attempts. Thanks the elaborate engineering ingenuity of the Wright brothers it’s only been over the past century that humans have successfully conquered air travel. Trips that used to take weeks or months have been shrunk down to mere hours; it is now possible to leave Los Angeles on a Saturday and be in Beijing, China for a meeting by Monday morning (note: due to the international date line, you’ll arrive on Sunday afternoon). The good news is that modern air travel can really bring the world closer together; the bad news, unfortunately, is that if you are a fitness fanatic yet have a job requiring frequent air travel, that travel could cause additional stress that could potentially derail your healthy lifestyle.
Whether you’re flying to make it to that important meeting, attend a conference or finally rewarding yourself with a vacation, 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. If you are a road warrior who takes your fitness program seriously, it is important to know what you can do to stay in shape while you’re on the road. Staying fit while traveling requires a few simple strategies that can be implemented wherever you go no matter how much equipment you have.
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 Mileage Plus account on United, I have traveled more than 700,000 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 in addition to a great bodyweight workout that can be found in my book Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple. For you road warriors out there, here are tips for what to do during your travels to minimize the physical stress from hurtling thirty-five thousand feet in the air seated in an aluminum tube along with a bodyweight workout that works!
- 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. 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, while an aisle seat allows you to move around a little easier, it’s not as comfortable and if you want to get a little shut-eye a window seat makes a big difference. One nice thing about the larger plans is that there is space around the restrooms and mid-plane emergency exits that allow for some standing stretches.
- When seated for an extended period of time the tissues, specifically the ligaments, tendons and muscles, around the ilio-femoral 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 approximately 30-45 seconds; then make circles with your hips moving in one direction for 30-45 seconds before moving in the other direction for the same amount of time; finally press your hips forward and backwards (focus on moving from your pelvis, instead of your spine) for 30-45 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 of the passengers and it is a federal crime, meaning you can get in a lot of trouble if you make their job more difficult).
- 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 line-up for take-off at ORD or IAH.
- While at the airport, either before take-off 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. To be fair, 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 where having a club membership is definitely worth the investment.
- 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 a 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 can also be played at the International terminal in SFO and when checking in to the main United Club at IAH.
- One of the biggest challenges to traversing crowded airports are 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 over the past number of years. 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 2-3 protein bars in my carry-on so I can snack on them in case I get hungry.
- 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. One benefit of a well stocked fitness center is besides having all of the equipment to get a proper workout, it has 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.
- 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. My favorites are (see the video below for a demonstration):
- 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 towards your left arm, then pull it back - push your left hand into the floor as you pull back on your right shoulder. 10-12 reps on each side for 2 sets.
- Type 1 thoracic rotation: stand with your feet hip-width apart, reach your right arm over your head towards 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 2 sets of 12-14 reps on each side of the body.
- Hip flexor stretch: keep your feet shoulder-width apart, move your right leg back and rotate it inwards so that your right foot is pointing towards 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 the hip. Hold for 45-60 seconds then switch legs. NOTE: 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 when standing by one of the lavatories.
- Hip stretch: kneel with your right knee under your right hip and your left leg rotated to the left side of your body so that you 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 10-12 rotations on each hip for 2 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 towards the ground, perform 5-8 repetitions to the left side then rotate to the right for the same number of repetitions; complete 2 sets.
Whether you are a road warrior who logs tens of thousands of miles or only make one or two trips a year, staying active during the process can make a big difference in how you feel once you get to your final location.
Get more tips and the solution you need to create efficient and effective workout programs that use only one piece of equipment with Smarter Workouts.