I’ve never run a marathon. In fact, I’ve never even come close. But, I have done what I like to refer to as a travel marathon this spring when I flew from Cape Town to Dubai to Amsterdam to London to Austin to Dallas to Los Angeles in the span of six days-- that has gotta count as a marathon of some sort, yeah?
What the body goes through when you push it to its physical limits, I believe my body went through during this travel time- but in the opposite way… I was pushed to my sedentary limits!
We all know that too much of anything can harm you, and in this case I was most certainly harmed from lack of activity. To help you better understand the specifics I’ll break down my travel itinerary/ marathon route:
Cape Town ✈️ Dubai: 11 hours
4 hour layover in Dubai 😴
Dubai ✈️ Amsterdam: 11 hours
6 hour layover in Amsterdam 🤪
Amsterdam ✈️ London: 1.5 hours
10 hour layover in London 🥴
London ✈️ Austin: 10 hours
13 hours in Austin 🌮
Austin ✈️ Dallas: 1 hour
72 hours in Dallas 🤠
Dallas ✈️ L.A: 3.5 hours
= 38 hours in the air, 143 hours in transit.
Woof. Writing that out my legs started to cramp.
Now, obviously not every journey I take is this extreme- It was the first time I was ever required to travel in such an intense way. It felt a bit like cruel and unusual punishment, but also like an intensive case study on how a sedentary posture can affect your overall well being. It was fascinating how much of a toll it ended up taking on my physical health-- mostly because I did it all wrong. Thanks to the symptoms I ended up developing I was able to deduce what parts of the body are most affected by airplane posture, and therefore able to come up with a killer tool kit of travel tips and tricks for you (and myself going forward) no matter how long or short of a journey you’re going on.
Prolonged periods on a plane is always going to be hard on the body but there are things you can to do make it as manageable as possible.
1- I sat in the middle seat from Cape Town to Dubai.
2- I did not get up and walk nearly enough
3- I did no stretching. None. Zero stretching. Period.
These are the posture oriented things I did wrong. I also feel it’s important to note that I didn’t pack enough healthy snacks, drink enough water or download nearly enough Netflix to keep me sustained for the entire journey.
I partially blame the fact that I was in denial about how long I was actually going to be in the air. I am also really good at taking my health and age for granted- I often think I’m immune to certain health issues simply due to the fact that I’m young and in general very healthy.
Well, the joke’s on me! I’m not immune!
Here’s a selection of issues that I developed from spending a week in the air:
1- A neck so stiff I could only look straight ahead.
2- Super, super swollen ankles and feet. Like, woah.
3- Lower back pain like I’ve never known.
4- Caved in, sad, slouchy, and very tight shoulders.
5- Lactic acid build up in my quads and hamstrings.
6- The type of headache I thought you could only get the morning after having several shots of tequila.
7- Fourteen days of spectacular constipation.
Of course, most of these issues were minor and after a bit of exercise and a few salads later they were pretty much cured. The one thing that really freaked me out was the inflammation I experienced. I had never felt anything like it before. It was very painful, and I could hardly get my shoes on and off. During one of my plentiful layovers I googled “swollen feet + airplanes” and got even more freaked out. It turns out that significant swelling in the extremities can often be an early sign of deep vein thrombosis or blood clots- luckily that was not the case for me, but it can be very common especially as you age, and it’s important to keep an eye on it in yourself or fellow passengers.
Here’s a picture of my fat swollen airplane ankles next to a photo of my regular, every day, walkin’ around ankles.
The easiest thing I could have done for myself was to reserve an aisle seat. I have really long legs and a lot of the time my knees pressed up against the back of the seat in front of me. I’m only 5’10” so I really feel for anyone who’s 6’0” or taller- you deserve an air travel medal! If I was in the aisle seat for each of my flights I would have definitely been more likely to get up and walk around more periodically. It’s also nice to be able to stretch your legs into the aisle whenever the coast is clear (watch out for drink carts though).
Speaking of drinking- here’s a hot tip: drink a full litre of water prior to takeoff (ideally while you’re boarding) and have the flight attendants fill up that bottle using versus drinking their teeny tiny (ridiculous) cups/bottles depending on who you fly. If you smile and say its for sustainability reasons to reduce the use of plastic and trash they treat you nicer and 9/10 times will fill the entire bottle all the way up. Not only is staying hydrated key to less jet lag and less swelling it also makes you get up to use the bathroom thus increasing circulation. Win, win, win!
They other thing I wish I had done is seated stretching on each flight. I often feel self-conscious about taking up too much space and my incessant need to be polite stops me from wiggling around too much or asking to get out to walk the aisles and use the washroom.
Here’s a list of simple stretches I wish I had curated in time for my trip...I want you to have them:
Seated Spinal Rolls.
This easy spine-stretching exercise can be done in your seat or while you’re waiting to board.
Roll forward on the hips and let the chest puff out, and then rolling back on the pelvis, undulating the spine by moving forward and back. You can curl all the way up to the head, being careful not to snap the neck.
Simple Seated Twist.
For this spine-stretching pose, sit up tall and grab the sides of your seat, twisting the torso to the right and the left, and holding for 10-20 seconds on each side. It feels delicious.
To strengthen and improve circulation in the legs (and prevent swelling!) try taking one leg at a time and imagine that you're lifting the middle of the thigh up to the ceiling. Keep your back straight while you're doing this and pull your belly button back in your seat. You can also try it with both legs up in a tuck, holding the sides of your seat for support.
Get your blood flowing by rolling the ankles in a circular motion with both the right and the left several times while stretching the leg out slightly in front of you (if you’re lucky enough to have space). You can also add a point-flex motion of the feet. This is great if you’re noticing you’re starting to swell.
Modified Mountain Pose.
If you're able to stand up by your seat or in an empty area by the back of the plane, try a simple modification of mountain pose to provide yourself with a satisfying full-body stretch. Stand up tall and bring the feet together pointing forward, and raise your arms up above your head with the hands clasped together. Slowly raise your heels so that you're standing on the balls of your feet and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat for as long as you can get away with it!
Try heading over to the bathroom area by the back of the plane to do a few mini-lunges, bending one leg and stepping forward with the whole body and then back with the legs together. Even a few repetitions (assuming there's not a line of people getting in your way) can help increase blood flow. This will require a bit of boldness- but my advice is to just embrace it. Minor embarrassment is always better than stiff legs.
Moving throughout the flight would have helped get the blood flowing in my legs which would have lessened the swelling. It also would have helped with my back pain and neck stiffness, counter acted all my shoulder slouchiness, and it would have helped to get the lactic acid moving- Oh! It would have helped my digestive system too.
It took about three days for my ankles to finally come back to their normal size- thanks to the help of compression socks I bought at theGatwick Airport and lots of water. It was almost two and a half weeks before I started to feel 100% like myself again.
I’m aware this was a case of extreme travelling but all of these symptoms can begin to happen in as little as two hours, so no matter how far you’re going it’s important to be proactive. If sitting in the new smoking then being on an airplane is basically like rolling your body in tobacco and lighting yourself on fire.
Okay- that last bit was dramatic but, you get what I’m saying. Being stuck in a seated posture for an extended period of time is not helping us thrive as posture conscious people. We are limited to what we can do to counteract the effects of sitting and it ends up taking a toll if you travel frequently.
Do you travel a lot? What are some of your secrets for staying comfortable while travelling? Please share them with me- I’ve got so many more flights to go on this year!