Stay Healthy on Your Next Flight

Stay healthy when you fly the friendly skies.

There’s only one way to really enjoy flying: Buy your own plane. The rest of us are stuck with missed and canceled flights, sardine-can cabins, and humiliating security procedures, all of which are enough to send our stress levels soaring.

Add to that the physical tolls extracted by cabin air literally drier than the air in the Sahara, changing cabin pressure, and hours of sitting in a chair seemingly no wider than your hips, with someone’s seat back in your lap, and you’ll understand why the following tips are so critical when you take to the skies.

1. Three days before your trip, start boosting your immune system with doses of echinacea and vitamin C. There are more germs circulating in the air on planes than you can shake a stick at. Don’t ruin your trip by getting sick.

2. Take an aspirin the day before a long flight, the day of the flight, and for three days afterward. Have you heard of deep-vein thrombosis, also known as economy-class syndrome? When you sit without moving around for long hours, the blood pools in the legs. That could lead to a blood clot, and if that blood clot travels to your lungs or another important organ, it could be deadly. Aspirin thins the blood, making clots less likely.

3. Pack three chamomile tea bags in your carry-on bag. When the airline attendant comes around with drinks, ask for a cup of hot water and dunk the tea bag. The herbal tea will soothe your travel jitters and relax you enough so you can get some sleep on the plane, arriving refreshed.

4. Use a backpack for your carry-on so you can take the stairs in airports instead of the elevator or escalator. You’ll probably have the stairs all to yourself, and it’s a great way to stretch your legs and burn a few calories before you get onboard. As you wait for your flight, power walk through your terminal. “I can rack up a couple of miles just by ambling to and from the gates and circling the baggage carousel,” says Ian Adamson, an exercise physiologist and adventure athlete who spends roughly seven months of the year traveling to races.

5. Get up and walk between meals, and use that time to stretch. Do the following stretching exercises at least once every hour during the flight, courtesy of Adamson:

  • Standing in the aisle, stretch your calves by taking a large step back with one leg and reaching into the floor with your back heel.
  • Also while standing, stretch your torso and back by twisting gently from side to side.
  • Then, when seated, stretch your arms, shoulders, and upper back by extending one arm overhead, bending it, and placing your palm against your shoulder blade. You can use the other arm to increase the stretch.

6. In your seat, perform these six exercises every half-hour. They will keep the blood flowing and help prevent stiffness.

  • Raise your shoulders and rotate front to back, then back to front.
  • Drop your chin to your chest. Nod yes, then nod no, pointing your chin to one shoulder, then the other.
  • Clasp your fingers together, palms facing each other, then stretch your arms out straight in front of you, palms facing out.
  • With your heels on the floor, pull your toes up as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds, then release.
  • Lift one foot slightly off the floor and make small circular motions in each direction with your foot. Repeat with the other foot.
  • Lift one heel as high as possible while keeping your toes on the floor. Hold for a few seconds, then release. Repeat with the other foot.

7. Avoid sitting with your legs crossed. Instead, prop your feet on some carry-on luggage to make yourself more comfortable.

8. Get to the airport two hours early so you can request a seat change to the exit row. You will have oodles more room to stretch your legs, reducing your risk of blood clots and improving your mood throughout the entire flight. Unfortunately, you can only book the exit row seat at the airport. Use those extra two hours to get in some power walking through the airport. In case you don’t get there early enough, book an aisle seat. At least you’ll be able to get up and walk around without climbing over your neighbor.

9. If you can afford it or arrange it, travel business class. The fabric seats in economy class are perfect havens for dust mites and other allergens and germs. Often, seats in business class are leather, which are more hygienic.

10. Bring a fully charged cell phone preprogrammed with airline reservation telephone numbers. If your flight is delayed or canceled, you can immediately call reservations to rebook. Much quicker (and thus less stressful) than standing in the customer service line.

11. Bring a bottle of water and a bag of healthy snacks in your carry-on bag even for what should be a short flight. Not only do fewer airlines serve food these days, but unexpected delays (like sitting on the tarmac for 90 minutes while the wings are de-iced) can send your blood sugar plummeting.

12. Carry a large, empty plastic coffee mug (the kind with a top you can sip through). Ask any restaurant in the airport to fill it with ice and water. Bingo! Free water to maintain hydration. On the plane, have the attendant refill it. Much better than the tiny cups of water they usually provide.

13. When booking flights, book the first flight of the day. It’s most likely to be on time, so you’re less likely to get stressed. It’s also most likely to be freshly cleaned.

14. Keep your nasal passages and ears clear by taking a decongestant as directed for 24 hours before your flight. This will shrink the membranes in your sinuses and ears.

15. Chew gum, swallow vigorously, or yawn widely when the plane is taking off or landing.
This will equalize the pressure in your middle ear.

16. Skip the alcohol during the flight. The air in the plane is dry enough; alcohol just dehydrates you even more. Same with caffeinated drinks.

17. Resist the temptation to remove your shoes during the flight. You’ll end up with swollen feet due to the low air pressure in the cabin, and your shoes will be uncomfortable when you put them back on.

18. Dress in layers. Planes are often too hot or too cold. Stay in control of your own temperature by having layers to add or subtract.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest