Traveler's Recital

That 5 Hour Flight Can Cause You Problems

We all know that being a couch potato, day, after day, after day, will have a negative impact on our physical health. We need some exercise to stay healthy. However, even for those of us that stay physically active, short periods of total inactivity can be problematic. Those 5+ hour flights, the all-day automobile drives, and the wonderfully lazy days aboard the cruise ship can be an issue, especially for the older traveler.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”. There is more than a little wisdom there. Staying active is the key to staying healthy…even over the very short term. There are some fairly simple tricks you can use to avoid the issues of short term inactivity while traveling. Let’s put together a plan for dealing with the two most common problems.

  • Dehydration: Every time you exhale, water leaves your body. Very dry air can make increase this effect. Of course this happens in the dessert or at very high elevations, but the air in most commercial airliners is very dry too. This means that you lose water much faster than you normally would, but since you are probably not being cooked by the sun you are less likely to notice.  By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated, and even a minor amount of dehydration can lead to headaches, muscle cramps, irritability, and lack of ability to concentrate.  Particularly in those over the age of 50, moderate dehydration can lead to loss of appetite, delirium and increased risk of urinary tract infections. Preventing dehydration is pretty simple in most situations…drink more. The problem is, the circumstances often work against you. Here are some simple things you can do to avoid dehydration.
    • Make sure you start your trip hydrated. Start drinking additional fluids the day before you leave. Most people are slightly dehydrated first thing in the morning. Start your day with something to drink.
    • If you are flying, get to the airport early and leave some time to get something to drink.  Non-caffeinated drinks are preferred, but even caffeinated drinks are better than nothing when it comes to staying hydrated.
    • If you are driving, take a bottle of water in the car and stop to get more before it is all gone.
    • If you are flying, buy a bottle of water once you get inside the security area in the airport. Remember, you can’t bring beverages through security. If you don’t want to buy water in the airport, bring an empty bottle from home and fill it up once you are through security.
    • Always drink with every meal.
    • When flying, always accept and drink the beverages offered while in-flight. Don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendants for more.
    • Don’t drink alcohol in excess. This actually makes dehydration worse.
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can be a very painful and potentially life threatening situation where clots forms in the large veins of your legs. These clots can then break lose and travel to your lungs. That would be very bad. DVT can develop as a result of sitting still for a long period of time.  The reason for this is that your heart is not the only part of your body that pumps blood. The muscles in your lower legs contribute to the pumping action when you walk. If you are sitting, that action does not occur. There are some simple things you can do to significantly reduce your risk.
    • Do not become dehydrated (Notice a pattern here?)
    • While sitting in your seat, tap your feet. This simple motion of moving your feet causes the calves to contract and helps force blood out of your legs and back to your heart.
    • Get up and walk around at least once every hour. If you are driving, pull over and walk around your car a few times. If flying, getting up is a lot easier to do if you have an aisle seat. If you are drinking enough, that will keep you running to the bathroom.
    • While sitting in your seat, press your feet to the floor for 5 seconds and then lift them off the ground for 5 seconds. Repeat this 5 times every hour.
    • If you are able to take aspirin, take a baby aspirin (81mg) about 30 minutes before leaving. There are risks associated with aspirin use, so ask your doctor if you have any concerns.
    • Do not cross your legs. If you are flying coach this won’t be an issue (when was the last time you had room to cross your legs?)
    • Stretch your legs whenever possible. This is much easier if you keep the space at your feet clear. Don’t have bags at your feet.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of getting older is that your risk of various problems increases. If you are like me, this won’t stop you from doing the things you want to do, but it should make you do them a bit smarter.

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