Exercises for a long haul flight
08.30.18|Posted by Helen Davison

Physio advice for a long-haul flight

Helen Davison is an Ascenti physiotherapist based in London. Here she combines her personal experiences of travelling the world with her clinical expertise, to bring you top advice about coping with the aches and pains associated with long-haul travel.

I love to explore new places and I’ve done around seven long-haul flights myself over the last year or so.

This has included the journey to Australia and back. I lived in Sydney for seven months before backpacking around the rest of the country and New Zealand. 

How does long-haul travel affect your body?

Neck, shoulder and back pain can be common during or after any kind of long journey.

This is primarily down to a lack of movement and sitting for many hours in one position. 

Plane seats are hard to adjust and are made for the ‘average’ person, which means that you may find yourself hunched or in sitting positions that are unnatural for you.

Sore legs, calves and feet are also a common complaint, which again is usually down to a prolonged upright sitting position.

Being at a high altitude thickens your blood and sitting for long periods can make it harder for your body to pump blood around. This can lead to swelling and stiffness in your leg muscles and feet.

On top of that you are also contending with lifting and carrying heavy luggage, a lack of sleep and changing time zones.

How should I prepare for my flight?


Take a travel pillow – It can feel like a waste of space carrying your own neck or travel pillow, but it can make a huge difference to your comfort and ability to sleep during a flight.

You will likely have a pillow provided by the airline, but these can be poor quality and you can always use both to get really comfy.

Travel socks – If your flight is longer than 4 hours then take travel socks, sometimes called flight socks, to support your circulation.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition, heart of circulatory problem then you should seek advice from your GP before you fly.

Layers for warmth – Regardless of how hot or cold the country you are flying to or from may be, aeroplane cabins often have very cold air-conditioning that ramps up once you are in the air.

Most companies will offer you one blanket whilst flying, but you don’t want to be shivering or tensing your shoulders for 10 hours.

Take a jumper, blanket or scarf and socks to keep warm.

Water – It can be hard to get the amount of water that you need when flying as the cups and bottles that they provide are often very small.

Obviously you can buy water at the airport, but I usually take a big empty plastic bottle and fill it up once I am through the security checks.

The majority of airports will have a drinking water fountain where you can do this for free.  Once in the air, cabin crew are also more than happy to refill your bottle for you. 

Make a plan – If you have an injury or are worried about something like back pain, then you should think about how you are going to manage this.

Speak to a physiotherapist or a GP before you fly to make a plan. 

If you can afford it, think about booking aisle seats or spaces with extra leg room so that you can move around easily and get comfortable.

It can also help to speak to the airline that you will be travelling with to check things like if you will be able to take your pain medication in your hand luggage or not.

If you have a broken a bone and a cast on then some airlines may require a doctor’s note or ask to see that your cast has been split. This is to allow room for any additional swelling once in the air.

What can I do to minimise discomfort during the flight?


Stay hydrated – If your muscles become dehydrated then you are more likely to feel discomfort during and after your flight.

Avoid or limit alcohol and caffeinated drinks until you reach your destination as these will dehydrate you further.

Sometimes I take herbal tea bags and ask the flight attendants for hot water instead or tea and coffee.

Get out of your seat – This can be a tough one, because many people feel awkward asking others to move or squeezing past people in the aisle.

My feeling is that this is so important and you’ll probably never see these people on your flight again, so get up and move around as much as you feel you need to, at least every two hours.

This could be as simple as walking to the toilet or moving gently and stretching whilst standing in any cabin space that is available.

Move in your seat – These simple exercises and movements can be done whilst you are in your seat and as often as you like. I would recommend every 30 minutes or so if you can.

This is a great way to keep stiffness at bay, joints mobile and blood flowing. 
Eat light meals – Being at a high altitude can slow down your digestive system and affect your blood circulation.

Although it’s often tempting to eat and snack more, it’s best to avoid heavy meals and to choose healthier options.

How can you reduce discomfort after a flight?


Sleep – Make time to sleep once you reach your destination.

In response to daylight our body produces a hormone called melatonin throughout the day which regulates our circadian rhythm (also known as our body clock).

This helps us to feel sleepy at the end of the day when it gets dark. When you fly this is thrown off course and you experience ‘jet lag’.

Sleep is a time when your body works to heal and repair itself, so if you are deprived or don’t get the rest that you need after your journey then this can make it harder to recover.

You’re probably going to be very tired, but avoid nodding off on a bus seat or sun lounger. Wait until you are in a bed where you will be able to get into a good sleeping posture.

Get moving – It might be tempting to opt for a sun lounger and a cocktail as soon as you reach your destination, but try to build in some exercise and movement.

Perhaps you could have a day exploring the local area, walking along the beach or attend a yoga class.

Stretch out tension – These stretches can help to relieve common points of tension following travel and help to get blood flowing back to the muscles again. 

Manual therapies – If your post-flight aches and pains don’t improve within a week, consider seeing a physiotherapist.

They will be able to check for any underlying causes and can relieve tension that may have built up with manual therapies, such as soft-tissue massage and joint mobilisation. 

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