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A Pilot’s Guide to Staying Fit and Healthy While Traveling

A pilot's biggest struggle: staying healthy

As an airline pilot, I can relate to how difficult it is to get into a healthy routine while traveling. Just as with many other business travelers, my days can start anytime from 3AM to 8PM and last up to 16 hours.

It may seem tough to get into any sort of regimen, especially when your body clock isn’t aligned with whatever new time-zone you’re in. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be tough.

That’s because there are simple, but highly effective changes you can make that will improve the way you travel, forever.

Staying Healthy While Traveling Starts Before You Leave Home

I’m sure you love long flights in cramped economy seats just as much as I do; stiff knees up against the seat in front of you, back aching, both armrests taken by your neighbors, always a baby crying somewhere. There are certainly better (and more spacious) places to be.

The healthy option: get your exercise before you're onboard.
Another option for more room: Fly Delta. Ok, I’m just a little biased….

There are ways you can try and alleviate the pain, if just a tad. For example, you can partake in some exercise moves, such as calf raises, while in your seat to keep the blood flowing and muscles from cramping.

However, even if you get up to stretch your legs, there’s only so much physical exertion you can do before you start violating other people’s private space, or scare a flight attendant.

Before you embark on your next flight, think of your future self. Will you feel good knowing you sat all day, and now you’re going to be sitting some more on an airliner in seat 46E? Let’s take the healthy route.

If you have time, it’s a great idea to get some exercise in before you leave. Whether it’s a 10-minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout, a 30-minute walk outside, or just your basic sit-ups and pushups, it counts. If you’re leaving early in the morning, get your exercise the day before. Still counts….

Healthy bodyweight exercise is completely feasible, even in the comfort of your hotel room.
Ok, you don’t have to be as fit as Manvel Mamoyan. But you can try….

The endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin released by exercise will leave you feeling positive and relaxed for the rest of the day. Not only do these chemicals boost your mood and sense of well-being, they also get rid of stress. I don’t actually know how they do that, but I trust the scientists.

All of this ensures that you’ll be able to rest, relax, and unwind peacefully on your journey towards healthy travel.

Healthy Meal Prep for the Road

Most of the time, the best way to ensure you’re eating the healthiest food… is by cooking it yourself. These days, excellent-quality travel-sized coolers are easy to find. They will generally keep your food safe and cold for 12-24 hours, which should be enough time to get you to the nearest suitable fridge or freezer.

My personal favorite, travel-friendly cooler is the Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag. It is the perfect size, collapsible, specially designed for travel, and has great reviews on Amazon:

The road to healthy food is one you pave yourself.
Lifewit Collapsible Cooler Bag: meal prep made easy

Although I haven’t tried this one, it has the cool dual-functionality of also serving as a backpack:

Or you can hide that healthy food so nobody takes it.
Pretty nifty and incognito backpack/cooler. Click on the picture for more details.

You can easily find re-fillable ice bags online, and re-fill them on the road at almost any hotel. When you run out of food, empty those ice bags and use your cooler as additional storage for any souvenirs you pick up along the way. 😊

Alternatively, most coolers are small enough to fit into your suitcase for easy storage! The first one listed above actually compresses down to almost nothing.

Pro Tip: Flight attendants usually have ice available in their galleys (in case you have an unusually long flight sequence or forgot to pack ice). Just ask! You never know.

Alcohol and Caffeine

As much as I enjoy coffee (and trust me, I do), I find that it’s best to avoid it before a long journey.

Flights are a great time to either get rest, or get work done. If it’s an overnight and/or long flight, you’ll want to choose the healthier option: rest. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get much work done effectively after you land.

Coffee is ok, but I'd advice against more than one cup if you're planning on resting that flight.
That’s a cup of coffee that I’d break my own advice for!

Alcohol and caffeine can disrupt your sleep cycle, energy levels, and mood over the day. In general, I’d avoid more than one serving of each per day while traveling, less if you can muster it. This is especially true if you’re dealing with jet lag.

You should avoid soft drinks, especially very sweet beverages like Coca-Cola. The high levels of sugar can spike your blood sugar level and lead to hypoglycemia along with long-term heath complications. Not very healthy.

Diet Coke can be just as bad, considering the artificial sweeteners and additives. On top of other well-known health detriments, these artificial ingredients can cause you to feel hungrier than you actually are, basically removing the entire benefit of drinking a “diet” beverage.

Healthy Airport Food

know it may be hard to do when the smell of Chik-Fil-A hits you and your empty stomach in terminal C of Atlanta-Hartsfield’s International Airport, but it’s important to eat healthy, light food while on the go.

The last thing you need is to miss a flight due to an “unforeseen delay” involving some sort of “mechanical issue” caused by eating that double bacon fried chicken sandwich.

One additional factor to consider is the fact that with pressurization changes in flight, trapped air stored at a higher pressure inside your body will want to escape. This may cause discomfort – not just for you, but also for those around you, if you catch my drift.

Healthy options at the Delta Sky Club!
Lounges can be an easy source of healthy food on the run. From Delta.com.

I recommend going out of your way to avoid unhealthy, heavy, greasy, and/or fried food at the airport. These days, you have many healthy options available at most airports. If not, lounges usually offer a decent selection of food. You can gain access to these via most high-end credit cards.

In my experience, the lounge food you need to avoid before long flights includes most kinds of soup. Just a pro tip. It took quite a bit of trial-and-error and many long flights across the Atlantic for me to finally figure this one out. You’re welcome.

Welcome Aboard

On the plane, it’s important for your health to occasionally stretch and keep your blood circulating. It’s also extremely important to stay hydrated. The air inside airplanes typically has 1-5% relative humidity, as most of it is just heated air taken from the extremely dry, cold environment outside the airplane.

You can take care of both of these needs simultaneously; you should drink lots of water and take frequent bathroom breaks. While you’re standing in line, stretch your legs as much as reasonably possible. You might look weird, but hey, health is more important.

Do your stretches in here!
Delta’s new A220. Now that’s a lavatory I don’t mind spending time in. | Delta Air Lines

Thanks to the healthy food you ate before leaving, workout you completed before leaving, and stretching you did during your frequent bathroom breaks, you’ll be able to hit the road running. Maybe literally.

Hit the Road Running and Healthy

You just got off the plane. It’s been a long journey, and you’re ready to catch up on some sleep. But wait… you still have to leave the airport!

Now’s the time to start your trip on a good, healthy note. You probably want to get out of the airport and out into the real world as quickly as possible, right? Great!

On your way out the airport, walk as fast as you can and use stairs instead of escalators. Pro Tip: stairs are the quickest way out of the airport.

Avoid using the moving walkways – they’ll probably slow you down anyways because of all the people standing on them. Just keep waving as you fast-walk right by them.

Penguins are pretty fit and healthy. Or not? Does waddling count as exercise?
Just smile and wave boys, smile and wave

Reaching the Hotel/AirBnb/Lodging

If your hotel has an open gym, great, you’re in luck. That’s not commonplace during the pandemic.

If you’re like me, you aren’t terribly comfortable around public gyms during a pandemic (or maybe in general). Otherwise, if the gym is closed, there are so many other ways to get some exercise.

Body weight exercises have become extremely commonplace. You can search Youtube for literally millions of bodyweight-only workout videos. If you don’t have a workout mat available, use the hotel towels! They’re usually nice and plush.

If that’s not your thing, there are some fantastic suspension trainer systems that will give you workouts that exceed any you could even imagine at the typical hotel gym. One example is the TRX Go Suspension Trainer System (rated 4.8/5 on amazon):

Get the same workout you'd get at the gym, without the gym....
Healthy exercise movement and stretches aplenty.
Some exercises afford to you by the TRX (and other resistance bands). Click on the picture for more details.

The entire package is super portable, so it won’t take too much space in your suitcase. It can be used indoors (in your hotel room) or outdoors, won’t disturb your neighbors like jumping jacks might, and is quite inexpensive compared to a gym membership.

If you’re looking for something cheaper, these resistance bands will do the trick. They even come in a small backpack:

The cheap, simple fix to staying healthy and fit on the road.
Only $9.95, super portable. Click on the picture for more details.

I partake in a 10-minute morning health routine every day. It’s easy to fit in sometime in the day, even if late at night. There isn’t a single excuse not to workout for 10 minutes a day.

It’s such a short period of time if you think about it. Take a look at your phone screen time – there will definitely be 10 minutes somewhere you could exchange for a workout.

Walk, Jog, and Run

During these COVID-stricken days, I can’t think of any better activity for your health than a nice jog outside. As winter approaches, you may have to bundle up a bit, but it’s worth it.

There’s no better feeling than a “runner’s high” – the serene feeling you get after driving your cardiovascular system to its maximum and back down to normal levels. On top of that, getting fresh air is probably the most rejuvenating and healthiest thing you can do on a trip.

Jog. It's free!
The best thing about jogging is: you can do it anywhere, with no equipment required.

Plus, there’s no safer place during a pandemic (apart than your basement, maybe) than the great outdoors. Getting some sun, especially during winter, is vital for your health. 10 to 15 minutes of sun is all you need to produce all the Vitamin D your body needs.

Altogether, going for a nice run, jog, or walk can contribute hugely to your wellness and health. Possibly more importantly, it helps eliminate jetlag and improves your sleep quality.

Sleep

Perhaps more important to your health than anything else I’ve written in this article; sleep is absolutely crucial to staying healthy on the road.

In addition to helping your brain form and retain memories, sleep heals and repairs your heart and blood vessels.

Over time, a sleep deficiency could result in heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. It’s not a good idea for your long-term health to allow yourself to lose sleep while traveling.

Here are some tips to deal with jet lag and improve the quality of your sleep.

The epitome of health. Don't you miss those days?
Do you remember sleeping this well? Yeah, me neither….

I don’t particularly recommend sleep drugs as a remedy for sleeping problems. Exercise is the #1 remedy I can recommend. But if you have to take something, I would look into melatonin.

Melatonin a natural hormone that is normally secreted by your pineal gland. It serves to regulate your sleep–wake cycle. Jet lag and travel can disrupt the normal release of melatonin into your bloodstream, so taking melatonin supplements around bedtime can help you get better sleep.

Another vital detriment to sleep is blue light. The best way to decrease your blue light intake is by reducing smartphone, TV, and computer usage as you approach bedtime. Experts recommend not having any screens illuminated in front of you for an hour or two before sleeping.

Watch the social dilemma on Netflix, then tell me if you think cell phones are healthy.
Unfortunately, this is not very healthy late at night. I fall into this trap just as often (if not more) as you do.

Using a cell phone or a computer late at night may not seem like an issue at first, but your brain remains active far beyond the moment you’ve stopped. I have recently begun reading books towards bedtime instead of using my phone, and have personally found my sleep to be more restful.

How Long is All of this Healthy Stuff Going to Take?

When you consider all of the minor habit changes that I’ve suggested, here’s the summation of the extra time involved:

  • Meal Prep: extra 5-15 minutes of cooking and preparation
  • 10-15 minutes exercising before heading to the airport
  • 1-5 minutes less total time to exit the airport
  • 10-15 minutes of exercise in your hotel room or gym, and/or
    • 10-30 minutes of walking and jogging
  • Up to 1 hour less of screen time per day

You’ll end up spending an extra 15-30 minutes being healthy on day one, and another 10-45 minutes during your trip. And I don’t think you’ll regret a minute of it.

Thanks for reading!

There are some affiliate links in this article. I do receive a small commission for those. However, they are items I would recommend regardless of commission (and actually use myself!)

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