How To Stay Active While Flying For The Winter Holidays

Cue the holiday music! If you have to catch a flight home, you’ve probably already started prepping for the airport craziness ahead. Whether you’re headed to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving or planning to escape to a faraway sunny destination in December, the aches and pains of sitting on an airplane can feel impossible to avoid. 

Though cramped seats, invasive tray tables, and armrest battles may await, the news isn’t all bad. You’re going to have some well deserved time off, and we’ve talked to stretching specialists to get their advice on how to get your body through the airplane discomfort. Check out these tips before going wheels-up:

Walk for water. Drank all your H2O? Don’t wait for the bar cart to come to you—seize the opportunity to walk the aisle and ask for a refill. Remember, it’s important to move at least once an hour, and you also need to stay hydrated. “Drinking extra water and incorporating gentle Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) movements will help your circulation and joints,” says Diane Waye, AIS Specialist and owner of Stretching By The Bay. “Even a few minutes of AIS intermittently will help. You will feel better while flying, and when you arrive.” Pro tip: While you’re up, take a few extra laps up as long as the seat belt sign is off. 

Queue stretches. Is there a security, boarding, or bathroom line? Take the opportunity to try some stretches while you wait. Whether you’re in the air or not, it’s vital for your recovery to stretch before and after flying too. “AI Stretching while flying helps mitigate the effects of altitude and cramped seating,” says Waye. “It also increases circulation as well as range of motion (ROM). After flying it helps re-energize your body.” 

If you’re waiting at the carousel to retrieve your luggage, Waye suggests doing some overhead reaches—as if you’re picking cherries—or Standing Quad AI stretches. “Stand on one leg, don’t lock out your knee, and keep your hips level. Have a neutral pelvis and spine and start in a pelvic tilt to preempt arching your back. Grasp the ankle of your other leg, and with that heel in line with its same side sit-bone, inhale as you bring your knee up, then exhale as you engage your glute to reach that knee behind you. Do 5-10 reps, hold each for 1-2 seconds, and repeat on the other side.”

Layover lunges. The airport is what you make it, and in this case, make it a gym! If you have extra time before your flight or are waiting for a connection, get moving. “Stiff, sore, and cramped muscles are certainly no way to begin or end a vacation,” says Jason Ramdeen, Physical Therapist and Stretch Practitioner at Stretched Out, Inc. in Brooklyn, New York. “Whether or not you’re on a plane, too much sitting can be extremely damaging to the body. The more you move, the more blood and oxygen flow your muscles will have.”

Consider doing leg strides to or around your gate, moving with ease and confidence. “The simple act of using your glutes to extend your trailing leg follow through helps keep your psoas, iliacus, and sartorius open,” says Waye.

Twist it out. After about an hour of being confined to small quarters, our bodies begin to get stiff and restless, which is why it’s important to stay flexible and fluid. Not only will you be more comfortable, but it will help avoid ailments such as blood clots, motion sickness, and back pain. If you’ve already gotten up a few times to walk the aisle, try these discreet chair stretches that your seatmate will barely notice:

  • Tilt your head from shoulder to shoulder.
  • Roll your ankles.
  • Roll your shoulders backwards and forwards.
  • Do a seated spinal twist.
  • Pull your knees to your chest.
  • Reach for your toes.
  • Clasp both hands and raise them to the ceiling.

“You can even do a seated cat and cow,” says Waye. “Inhale as you arch your spine, then exhale as you round your back, drawing your navel in towards your spine. This and the spinal rotations listed above are also good for digestion, which is often disturbed by travel.”

Recover with compression socks. The not-so-secret remedy to swollen and sluggish legs? Compression socks. Evidence has shown that these tighter-than-your-average socks can help drastically during air travel. The idea is that they help circulate the blood back up the leg to the heart, which can reduce swelling in your feet and possibly lower your risk of blood clots. Puffy ankles would make anyone grumpy, so we suggest slipping on a pair as soon as you take your seat. 

Proper plane posture. To avoid slouching and being hyper-flexed in airplane seats, Waye suggests filling in the space between the head and hips with a jacket, blanket, or pillow. “Fill the space so that your head isn’t pushed forward by the headrest and your back isn’t rounded. Putting something under your hips to make them higher than your knees will also help you sit on the front of your sit bones.”

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