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Health and Exercise While Traveling

By Terrance Malkinson

With advances in aviation and other transport modalities, we have the opportunity to travel for leisure and for business often and further at reasonable cost. Travel has changed considerably from the early days of aviation. Gone are the days when you could arrive at the airport a short time before departure, stretch out on an abundance of empty seats, enjoy a plentiful and nutritious food service, and select direct routing to your destination. Today, we must arrive at the airport very early, stand in multiple check-point lines, have only the choice (if at all) of questionable fast-food, board flights that are filled to capacity, endure grumpy silent and even obese seating partners, and repeat this process several times transferring between segmented flights to reach the destination. Adding complexity is the risk of catching an illness while traveling from the masses. The challenges of travel if not mitigated will lead to lethargy and impact negatively on business performance.

With these challenges it is more important than ever to be prepared and to be physically fit prior to and maintain your exercise regime while traveling as a personal strategy to withstand the rigors of travel. With effective planning and some creativity, exercise can easily be incorporated into your travel routine. Always check with your health care professional before you engage in an exercise program.

Common Medical Risks of Air Travel

Jet Lag: Jet lag is experienced by everyone traveling across time zones. Changes in the body’s normal daily (circadian) physiological rhythms occur. Your internal time clock system is suddenly out of synchronization with your new time zone. This 24 hour rhythm is an internally driven process that helps synchronize our internal biological systems with the external world. These systems include regulation of temperature, digestion, hormones, metabolism, immunity, cognitive performance and mood. Sunlight is the primary trigger in circadian rhythm in a process referred to as entrainment. Typically, it takes one day to adapt to the local environment for every time zone crossed. For most the adaptation is even longer for travel in an eastward direction. Numerous strategies have been employed to mitigate jet lag including pre-adaptation by gradually adjusting sleep and eating patterns to match the destination and medications that facilitate sleep when the body’s natural rhythm is geared toward wakefulness. Each person is different and you need to develop a strategy that works for you.

Deep Vein Thrombosis: Excessive sitting has the potential to cause blood clots in the legs due to blood pooling in the legs. The immobility and cramped unadjustable seating with air travel increase the risk even for short flights, car trips, rail travel, or even in the office. Without regular muscle contractions, blood starts to pool in the legs and will create conditions for a clot to develop. Thrombosis can be symptom-free to trigger cramps, soreness, and swelling. These deep vein thromboses can have varying degrees of size and effects on your health. Moderately sized clots can cause swelling, stiffness, and pain. Large clots can have life threatening consequences. Regular movement is advisable to improve blood circulation. Get up off your seat regularly and move around the cabin. Calf muscles can be exercised with up-and-down movements of the feet and rotate ankle joints. Elastic stockings can be worn that exert gentle compression on the calf’s reducing blood pooling. Particularly avoid sleeping for long periods while seated.

Infections: The risk of getting an infection increases while you are in an enclosed space such as an airplane. The risk is closely dependent on the infectiousness of the contagious person spreading the illness; how close you are to the person and for how long, and the ventilation of the space. Most respiratory viral diseases are transmitted via contaminated droplets. You have no choice of seating partners or aircraft ventilation and cleanliness. Most aircraft air circulation patterns are ceiling to floor with a 50percent air circulation rate and low humidity. Positioning the overhead vent thereby directing a low airflow slightly in front of your face may create enough air turbulence to prevent viral particles from landing on your mucous membranes. Hand hygiene is critical and important to protect yourself. Aircraft cabin air pressure in less than that on the ground which contributes to less oxygen being absorbed into the blood and gas expansion in body cavities. Some individuals particularly those with a pre-existing medical condition may experience difficulties.

Why Should you Exercise While Traveling?

  • Energy Levels: Travel especially across time zones is fatiguing. Exercise helps to maintain your energy levels, building stamina and facilitating performance.

  • Muscle Fatigue: Standing in lines and lifting heavy bags can cause fatigue and pain in feet, neck shoulders, and back. Exercise helps release muscular tensions.

  • Sleep: While traveling it can be difficult to get the sleep that you need. Exercising helps to maintain good sleep patterns.

  • Regularity: When traveling your diet may be considerably different from when you are at home. Exercise helps to maintain effective bowel function and reduced constipation. Exercise will help you stay on track for your body weight maintenance.

  • Stress relief: Exercise will help you decompress and release the stress built-up from the challenges of travel.

How to you Engage in Exercise While Traveling?

Six months before leaving find out what vaccinations or prophylactic treatments you should receive. Update your emergency health record and purchase the best medical travel insurance available. Ensure that you have adequate prescription medications and a letter from your physician to show at airport inspections or in the unfortunate event that you loose your medication and need replacement. Take prescription drugs with you; do not place in checked baggage. Make photocopies of your passport and other travel documents keeping them separate from the original. Some even suggest scanning your passport and saving the file in your email account. Do advance research locating fitness centers and nutritious food providers near your hotel.

Plan your luggage so that you can travel light. Choose low maintenance fabrics. The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels. Think in terms of what you can do without — not what might be handy to have. In today’s global marketplace you can purchase the same brands that you use at home in the most remote regions of the world. Place items in clear plastic bags to facilitate airport inspections.

To overcome jet-lag more quickly book a non-stop fight and a daytime arrival if available, especially if you are on a west-to-east flight. Once departed, reset watches to the destination time. Once you arrive get outside and do something active in the daylight.

Dress comfortably and use inflatable neck or lumbar supports. Rest well before the fight.

Get out of your seat and walk the length of the plane every hour or so.

To combat dehydration drink two glasses of water before boarding and another glass each hour during the flight. Chewing gum can help to relieve the ear pressure changes during ascending and descending. Gum will also keep you mouth tissues moist. Eat lightly and frequently. If you do have a transfer do some advance research on food providers at the transfer airport.

Book an emergency exit row as these seats often have additional leg room.

Whenever possible try and order food consistent with what you might eat while at home.

Book hotels that offer fitness centers. Some hotels are now offering in-room exercise opportunities such as mini-gyms in their guest rooms and personal training services.

Should your business partners be fitness enthusiasts consider alternative meeting locations such as on the weight floor at the gym or the golf course.

Airplane and/or Hotel Room Exercises

Stretching — Take advantage of every opportunity to stretch. Learn basic Yoga poses. Stretching helps to reduce tension and promotes blood flow. Maintain good posture while seated. Maintaining posture involves most of the muscles of thle body and keeps your skeleton in good alignment avoiding strains.

Abdominal — While seated on the airplane forcibly pull in your abdominal muscles while you breathe out. Hold for a few seconds, then relax and repeat. In your hotel room do push-ups and sit-ups. Isometric exercises such as this can be done for other muscle groups.

Calves — Flex calf muscles while keeping your heels on the floor and raising your toes. Next do the same while keeping your toes on the floor and raising your heels.

Ankles — Lift your feet off the floor and move your toes in a circle, one foot moving clockwise and the other foot moving counter-clockwise, then change direction every 15 seconds.

Knee Lifts — While keeping your knee bent, raise one leg while tensing your thigh muscles and then do the same with the other leg, repeating 20 to 30 times. Bend slightly forward, place e your hands around your knee and pull knee forward towards your chest. Hold for 15 seconds and then change legs, repeating 10 times.

Arms, Shoulders and Back — Raise your shoulders up, forward, downward, and backward in a smooth circular motion. Do pushups on the floor or against the wall. Pull your shoulder blades together while tensing the muscles and then relax. Place both feet on the floor and bend slowly forward “walking your fingers along your legs to your ankles, hold for 15 seconds and then sit up again slowly. Raise your hands high over your head and move circularly.

Endurance — Avoid the elevator when possible and use the stairs. Do a fast window-shopping tour.

Further Reading

Johnson, R., Travel Fitness Human Kinetics, 1995, ISBN 0873226550.

The Road Warrior Workout, Hatherleigh Press, 1999, ISBN 1578260256.

Diamond, J., Exercises for Airplanes: (and other confined spaces), Excalibur Publishing, 1996, ISBN 1885064039.

Eide, The Fit Traveller: Take your Workout With you, Publishers Design Group, 2006, ISBN 1929170173.

Meir, R., "Managing Transmeridian Travel: Guide-lines for Minimizing the Negative Impact of International Travel on Performance," Strength and Conditioning Journal, 24(4): pp. 28-34, August 2002.

Zeer, Darrin, Travel Yoga: Stretches for Planes, Trains Automobiles and More!, Chronical Press, 2005. ISBN 0811845036.

Health Tips, Aerospace Medical Association

Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel, Aerospace Medical Association.



Terrance Malkinson is a communications specialist, business analyst and futurist. He is Vice-Chair of the IEEE-USA Communications Committee, an international correspondent for IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Online, editor-in-chief of IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Digest, and associate editor for IEEE Canadian Review. He was an elected Senator of the University of Calgary and an elected Governor of the IEEE Engineering Management Society as well as an elected Administrative Committee member of the IEEE Professional Communication Society. He has been the editor of several IEEE conference proceedings, and past editor of IEEE Engineering Management. He is the author of more than 360 publications, and is an accomplished triathlete. His career path includes being an accomplished technical supervisor and medical researcher at the University of Calgary a business proposal manager for the General Electric Company, and an associate for Sears Canada Inc. Currently, he is with the School of Health and Public Safety/Applied Research and Innovation Services at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary Canada.

The author is grateful to the professional support of the Haskayne School of Business Library at the University of Calgary. He can be reached at todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2009 IEEE

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