This February I embarked on a long and exciting travel expedition to China, so that I could visit my boyfriend as he spent several months working abroad in Shenzen. Between flight changes and layovers, my flight to China totaled a grueling 25 hours.
Dry cabin air, high altitudes, and prolonged hours of sitting wreak havoc on the body of the air traveler. This can cause dehydration, stiff joints and muscles, swelling, and in serious cases, Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). DVT is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein, usually in the leg. These clots can break off and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs and heart. The condition can be fatal.
Luckily, DVT can be prevented and other airplane ailments can be remedied. And here’s the best news of all. You can do this by simply moving your body!
Here are the top 4 tips to make your flight happy and healthy:
1. Do an airplane workout!
It is not easy to move around in a confined space, but it is absolutely necessary to get up and do it every 30 minutes on an airplane. Here are some exercises to do in flight (both discreet and less so…) to keep your blood flowing and your body a little bit happier:
Isometric Glute Squeeze
This discreet yet effective exercise works those much neglected gluteal muscles while allowing you to stay courteously within the confines of your personal space. Simply squeeze your butt cheeks together, hold for 4 seconds, and release. You will actually feel your body rise a little bit as your glutes contract. That’s fabulous! Keep going. Repeat for 10 reps.
Abdominal Squeeze, Twist, and Roll
Can you isolate your upper rectus abdominus from your lower rectus abdominus? Can you perfect your drawing-in maneuver? Can you make your belly do the wave? Now is your chance to practice and become the master of abdominal isolation. It’s fun.
Contract your abs on an exhale, try to deepen the contraction on an inhale.
Or, incorporate belly breathing. Let the belly expand with air on your inhale and slowly draw in on a deep exhale. This slow, deep, breathing has a calming effect on the body. It will help combat flight anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and sending a signal to the brain that the body is out of danger.
Twist your torso side to side in your seat to relieve tension in the back and wake up the obliques.
Point and flex your feet several times. Alternate with ankle circles in each direction, and/or write out the alphabet.
Place your hands on the seat next to your hips. Keeping your chest open and shoulder blades sliding together down your back, push down on the chair as if you were going to lift yourself out of the chair. This exercise works the upper body and activates core stabilizers and serratus anterior.
Engaging your core flex at the hip and lift your foot off the floor. Due to space constraints, you will need to keep your knee bent. Place foot down and lift the other leg. Keep alternating in a marching manner. For extra blood-pumping power, Pointe your foot (plantar-flex) as you lift the leg
Hip Flexor Slide
This one is a little less discreet and a bit challenging to wiggle into, but ahhh feels so good. Recline your seat. Slide your butt down to the very edge of the seat. Now walk your feet towards you, as far as you can underneath your seat. Your heels will lift off the ground, but keep your toes and balls of the feet firmly planted. Keep your legs parallel and knees aligned with your hips. Place hands on seat of your chair for support, Draw in your abdominals and lay back as far as you can in your seat. Squeeze your glutes like crazy and hold. You should feel a release through the front of your hip flexors and even into your quads.
Sit to stand with Yoga chair
Time to get up out of that chair! Before you do squeeze your glutes. Try not to lean your body forward and use momentum as you stand up. Try to come straight up, powered by the glutes. Ceilings are low in planes so you may not be able to stand all the way up at the top! Lower back into your chair with control by engaging your abs. Take 5 sit-to-stands. On the last one, pause at the top and slide your legs together into a yoga chair position. This means legs together, back straight and pitched forward. Squeeze the glutes, inner thighs, and abs. The quads will also engage. With your hands near your sides take a “cobra” arm, sliding the shoulders down the back into a “V” shape and externally rotating arms and palms away from your body. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
The simplest and most effective way to get the blood flowing in coach is simply walking up and down the aisles. Add high knees, butt kicks, and reach your arms over head. If you are not shy and really ambitious, bust out a round of walking lunges.
2. Drink Lots of water!
The human body is comfortable when the air is about 50% humidity. Airplane cabins can have as little as 10% humidity (less than a desert!). This lack of moisture combined with the high altitudes reached by the plane dehydrates the body. Dehydration causes headaches, constipation, and susceptibility to infection. I bring empty collapsible water bottles in my carry on and fill them up once I have passed through security. Once on the plane, don’t be shy about asking for extra water. Always ask for two waters from the beverage cart. One for you, and you.
3. Get comfortable and lose the shoes.
The lower pressure in the airplane cabin can lower blood pressure. Combining this with long periods of inactivity can cause passengers to experience swelling in the feet, ankles and lower legs. Save the fashionable skinny jeans for your arrival and get comfy in loose fitting clothing. Wearing compression socks will help prevent swelling. Even if you wear your compression socks, take of your shoes so that you can wiggle your feet and toes to keep your circulation pumping.
<–Comfy socks, sweat pants, noise canceling headphones…ahhh ready to nap
No upper trap-syndrome for me! I rocked the geeky neck pillow all flight to keep my neck muscles relaxed and supported. –>
4. Control your light to beat jet lag
While there is no magical cure for jet-lag, studies have found that controlling your exposure to light can help reset your circadian rhythms and help you adjust to your destination’s time zone. Avoid too much blue light from electronic devices when your body should be sleeping. See if you can take a plane nap instead. When you reach your destination try to expose yourself to natural sunlight as soon as you can to reset your internal clock.
After I don’t even want to know how long, I saw the soaring peaks of the Himalayan Mountains poke through the clouds. It was a welcome sign of progress, but made me envious for a good hike to stretch my legs. Alas, I still had two hours left to Beijing and then one more three-hour flight to Shenzhen. Plenty of time for another round of exercise!
I arrived in Shenzhen around midnight (11am our time) after having left my house around 5am the day before. Or was it two days before? At this point it didn’t matter, I had made it and I was in China for the first time!
I was so excited to be there, and I was so confused about the time, day, and 60-degree weather that I managed to power through my jet-lag for the first couple of days and get straight to exploring. I spent my first two days in Shenzhen, a city that is only 30 years old but appeared to be larger and more industrious than New York City. Then it was off to Hong Kong, which is conveniently directly across the bay from Shenzhen.
While health and fitness in China did not appear to be the ‘craze’ that it is here in New York City, I did observe a few snippets of fit culture in Shenzhen and Hong Kong including Crossfit studios, health clubs, a few dance studios and many sneaker and athletic clothing stores. In Hong Kong I opted to take a modern dance class at the home studios of world renowned City Contemporary Dance Company. Luckily dance is a universal language, as the entire class was taught in Cantonese.
Can you say 5,6,7,8? 五、六、七、八 !
Although the big cities in China have not yet acquired the vast variety of fitness classes that we have here, their fashion is way more fun…
Warm-up for your workout in a Kimono-style Boxing robe! Matching patterns taken to a whole new level!
For the second week of our trip we journeyed deep into mainland China, taking the bullet train to the city of Guilin and then out into the rural areas of Yangshuo. This Southwestern region is known for tall limestone formations called Karst peaks. These formations go straight up! They are too steep to hike but are a favorite of rock climbers from all over the world.
In Guilin I was tickled to see that seniors and adults exercising in what I called ‘adult playgrounds’. These outdoor areas provide wrought-iron ellipticals, chin-up bars, balance beams, and seesaws all in adult sizes.
Peeking in on the adult playground
Just an hour outside of Guilin, the city gives way to small farming villages nestled between the Karst peaks. Walking, biking, and farming are the main modes of physical activity here.
Just like American teenagers, the teenage boys in the village play basketball. As a former college ball player, my boyfriend could not resist joining in the game.
After two weeks of adventure, it was time to get back on the plane home. At the airport I refilled my water bottles, and I was meticulous about performing my hourly butt squeezes. Then I gave my body what it needed most- sleep!