Sitting for a long period of time isn’t very healthy. But when you’re flying in an airplane, you’re not able to move about as much as you’d wish. Whether you’ve gone all out and reserved yourself a seat in first class, or opted for a money savvy option and took a seat on one of the cheapest flights available, you’ll find these stress-busting in-flight exercises easy to do while seated or while waiting in a queue for the toilet.
The simplest exercises you can practice in the air are done with your lungs. Breathing exercises can help you relax and rest better, and you will be better able to face any travel challenges such as delays. These simple exercises also improve your circulation, which is especially important if you are in flight for a substantial amount of time. Try a few minutes deep breathing through your nose, and then release the breath slowly through your mouth.
We tend to hold most stress in our shoulders and necks, and when we travel, we tend to take a lot of bulky things that hang around our necks, adding to the burden of those muscles. Avoid pain and cramping by taking a moment to do some relaxing neck rolls while you’re on the flight. To do this, sit up with your back straight, inhale and then exhale while you gently roll your head to the right, down and back to center. Repeat in the opposite direction.
Allow your lower back to release tension with some side twists. You can do these in your chair if you’ve got a vacant seat beside you or in the aisle while you’re waiting for the loo. If you’re seated, cross your right leg over your left, put your left hand on your right knee, and twist your body to the right, keeping your spine straight. Repeat on the opposite side. If standing, place your right hand behind your back on your left hip (or as close as you can get to the hip), and your left hand on your right hip. Twist to the right. Repeat on the opposite side.
Keep your arms and shoulders happy with some stretches that release tension built-up from hoisting cabin baggage to the overhead compartment or from lugging suitcases and carry-on bags through the airport. Lift your right arm straight above your head like an eager student flagging the teacher. Turn your palm inward, and pull your shoulder muscle down; think of this movement as the opposite of shrugging your shoulders. Breathe out and bend your elbow, so that your hand reaches the back of your head or your neck. Repeat on the opposite side.
Bending at the waist helps your upper body relax after being held rigidly upright in an economy seat for several hours. Shorter people may be able to bend over and grab their ankles from a sitting position, while taller airline passengers will want to wait until they’re standing in the aisle to try it. A word of caution: Don’t try bending from the waist while going through turbulence.
If you’re on a flight that’s not very full, take advantage of the empty aisles to walk a few times around the cabin every hour or so. Even this simple, gentle exercise is better for your body than remaining in your seat, and movement will help you feel more limber when the plane touches down. Do be mindful of the cabin crew’s schedule however, and don’t walk at a time when they’ll be pushing their carts in the aisles.
Even if you don’t feel like walking around the cabin — or if there’s heavy turbulence that keeps passengers in their seats — lifting your feet an inch or two from the floor and rotating your ankles first left and then right will help get some circulation into your feet and reduce the possibility of deep vein thrombosis. Do this once or twice an hour.
After doing some ankle rotations, focus on your thigh muscles. Lift each leg an inch — or higher, if you can — off the seat. If there’s room, pull your knee up to your chest and then release. This will help tired posterior muscles and take away some of the strain on your knees.
Don’t forget that your face is part of your body, too. Although it might seem strange to do “exercises” for your face, remembering to move your facial muscles around on a flight will help reduce the risk of a headache and help you feel less tired from your travels. Tighten your face muscles — purse your lips and scrunch your eyes — and then open your mouth and eyes as widely as you can. Stick out your tongue too, and feel the tension dissipate. If you’re feeling self-conscious about the opinions of your seatmates on a crowded flight, you can practice your facial stretches in the lavatory.
About the Author: Polly Jacobsen is a veteran traveler and yoga instructor from Calgary. She also sidelines as a business consultant specializing in ergonomics, helping offices become more comfortable and healthy for workers.