Battling the Unhealthy Health Hazards of Air Travel
There is something about flying on an air plane that leaves me feeling off for a few days. If I have to fly to a place where there is a time change and a long flight, then it will take me several days to feel normal again. Luckily, if I am flying somewhere, I am usually excited about it because it is usually a vacation. However, there are many people that fly every week due to their jobs. We have several members at CrossFit Passion that fly every week, sometimes days in a row. Since, I have 10 hours of flight today, I thought I might write about things you can do to help your body to stay healthy if frequent air travel is part of your life.
First, let’s talk about what happens to you when you fly. Typically, there is an added stress to air travel. You have to take care of responsibilities at home to leave, prepare for your trip, and leave your comfort zone of home and people. For people that fly weekly, they have become accustomed to this type of stress, but they still have it. For people that fly very little, air travel can be very stressful. Heightened levels of stress can wreak havoc on your adrenal system. This can create fatigue, mood imbalance, lower you immune system and the list goes on.
Once you have boarded the plane, you must sit in your seat with your seat belt fastened, until the pilot takes off and turns off the fasten seat belt sign. Air lines have spent lots of time and money on studies to maximize the number of people in planes, therefore we sit in pretty small seats packed tightly together, unless you are flying first class. If you are on a short flight then the sitting time isn’t too long. If you are on a long flight, well then you may be confined to a small cramped seat for many hours. Sitting for long periods is bad for blood circulation to your lower extremities. You can actually be at risk for Deep Vein Thrombosis. Also, sitting in a tight space will make your back, hips, and everything tighten up and decrease your mobility.
When we are on an air plane, the environment is very unhealthy for a variety of reasons. First of all, we are packed in tight spaces with many people. Then the cabin is pressurized and the air is recirculated. Some fresh air is brought in through the engines as the plane flies, but that doesn’t seem like it would be very clean. The humidity level of the plane can be as low as 10%, which is drier than a desert. At these low humidity levels, dehydration is a problem. So that means we are breathing extremely dry, dirty air and being exposed to many germs. Yuck!
Also, food options are not the best at airports and on the air plane. With the massive amounts of fast food restaurants in terminals and cookies being handed out on planes, it is really hard to fuel yourself correctly. So when you fly, most the time you are eating foods that are mass produced or processed. Eating low quality food will only add to the unhealthy effects of flying.
Bad food choices is not the only unhealthy fueling problem. Bad drinking choices can enhance some of the other effects of flying. When we are on an airplane and being dehydrated in extremely low humidity, drinking caffeine, sodas, or alcohol will only add to the problem of dehydration. Also, while our bodies are coping with added stress, cramped space with limited movement, extremely dry dirty air, we don’t help ourselves out by drinking beverages that decrease hydration even more and put more stress on our systems.
So what can we do about this? Flying is unavoidable for work travel, needed for vacation travel, and actually flying is pretty amazing. Most of the facts listed above we can’t change, but we can change how we operate to make the effects less damaging to our health.
The number one thing you can do is to stay well hydrated when you fly. This means hydrate the day before you fly, the day you fly, and continue the day after you fly. Drink water, not sodas, excess caffeine, or alcohol. Drinking plenty of water will keep your skin more hydrated, help your endocrine system, livers, kidneys and all the processing centers to work better, keep your lungs and sinuses clearer, and leave you feeling better overall. One tip is buy a big bottle of water before you board the plane. The tiny little waters they give out won’t be enough to battle dehydration on the plane.
Secondly, walk as much as you can through the airport. Avoid sitting while you are waiting at terminals. Move around. If you have a long lay over, then find some floor space and stretch when ever you can. If you have a long flight, get up and move around as much as you can while you are on the plane. Yes the plane is cramped, but you can still stand or go up and down the isle a little bit. If you can’t get up, you can pump your calves by moving your feet up and down, while you sit to help with circulation in your legs. Movement is good and will help you from feeling tight and lethargic.
Thirdly, make good food choices. If you take a little time to look around, you can actually find some healthy food. It is worth it! Avoid fried foods and sugary foods. Look for fresh fruits and vegetables, grilled meats or fish, and over all real food. Flying puts enough stress on your body, it will feel better with good fuel.
Last but not least, get some good quality sleep on your trip. Sleep is the best way for our bodies to reset everything. Sleep helps us cope with stress, strengthens our immune system, helps our brains operate well, and will help us with overall energy. Most importantly, get plenty of sleep the first night after you fly, at least 8 hours. Avoid alcohol, go to your room a little early, spend time unwinding and settling down, close the curtains to block out light, wear ear plugs if you have them to block out unwanted noises, and get some good quality sleep.
Also, once you are at your hotel, spend at least 30 minutes on mobility, specifically hip mobility. Getting down on the floor doing couch stretch, pigeon stretch, and loosening up your hamstrings will be good for your back. Doing this will loosen up your body after it has been tightened up in small air plane seats and sitting next to people you don’t know. Pack a lacrosse ball, a mobility band, and bring a roller if you can or borrow one if they have the in the hotel fitness center.
If you are able to stay well hydrated, eat clean foods, move around, and sleep well, you should be able to minimize the unhealthy effects of flying. Happy Travels!