“It’s really about doing stuff that can keep your body mobile, keep your circulation going and keep you from getting super, super stiff,” personal trainer Ashley Borden said.
I didn’t realize exercising on a plane was something people did until taking a China Eastern flight years ago. During a long-haul flight, a video popped up on our entertainment screens encouraging stretching and moving around. It felt good, plus it took the edge off the midflight doldrums.
To combat the toll a flight takes on your body — particularly a long-haul one — experts agree some physical activity can address some of the tightness, bloating and ache that makes us miserable.
The goal is not to work up a major sweat. Instead, your focus should be to stay as active as you can, keep your blood flowing and support your alignment so you can get through the flight with less pain and more energy.
Use the aisle
It’s tempting to go into hibernation mode on a flight, but “getting up and getting some steps in can be very helpful,” said Harley Pasternak, a celebrity trainer.
“It’ll get the blood moving, help with anxiety and possibly reduce your chance of getting deep-vein thrombosis,” he said. If you are able to choose your seat, pick the aisle to make getting up and out easier on you and your neighbors.
Melissa Kendter, trainer for the fitness app EvolveYou, walks the aisle and takes time to stretch near the lavatory (if travelers aren’t crowding the area).
“I will often do body-weight stretches where I bring my hands over my head and elongate my body, squat down and open up my hips or do some rotational movements,” Kendter said. “Quad stretches are also beneficial to elongate your quads and hip flexors from the prolonged sitting.”
Focus on your posture
Plane seats are forever shrinking and uncomfortable, but the way we sit in them doesn’t make the situation any better.
“People don’t realize how bad posture can affect how they feel for the first few days of their trip,” said trainer Chris Perrin, co-owner of Cut Seven gym in D.C. “Even if you don’t have chronic low-back pain, you can feel low-back pain for days for sitting with bad posture.”
Whenever you realize you’re slouching, Perrin recommends a chest lift by pulling your shoulders down and back. “Think about putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets,” he said. Then lift your chest up, making sure your core is engaged to avoid letting your ribs flair.
“It essentially aligns your spine, making a straight line from the back of the head to the tailbone” Perrin said.
Pasternak recommended shoulder circles for posture rehab. Start by lifting them both as high as they’ll go, pull them backward, then drop them down to complete the motion. His other posture move is to bend your elbows at 90 degrees with your palms up and rotate your upper arm
Engage your glutes
A byproduct of being sedentary during long flights is “your hip flexors are tight the entire time which puts your glutes to sleep,” Perrin said. That hip-flexor tightness ends up causing pain in the lower back, so you want to avoid it by keeping your glutes moving.
Perrin’s subtle in-seat way to do that is to have one leg bent at a 90-degree angle and the other slightly bent with your heel flexed. Drive weight into the slight bent leg, which will squeeze the glute and release the hip. Hold for 30 seconds then switch sides. “It wakes up the glute and that will lessen the amount of restriction people feel through their hip flexor,” he said. For long flights, he does a round of these plus chest lifts every two to three hours.
Borden keeps her glutes activated by bringing along a BackJoy Posture Plus Blue seat, which creates an active sitting position and corrects the position of the pelvis. Borden hooks it to her backpack for flights and “you can get up from a plane and you do not have back pain,” she said.
Try some in-seat yoga
Kelly DiNardo, owner of Past Tense yoga studio in D.C., encourages travelers to stretch in their seats to target pain.
For craned necks and hunched backs, try a seated spinal twist:
- Start with both feet flat on the floor then place your left hand on the outside of your right thigh.
- Next, rest your right hand on the right armrest or back of the seat (while being conscientious of your neighbors) and twist toward the right.
- Hold for five to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
To open up your hips, try a seated pigeon pose:
- Cross your right ankle over your left thigh just above the knee.
- Actively press your right knee toward the floor.
- Hold for five to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
Another hip-flexor move: lean back in your seat and hug one knee into the chest. Hold that position for five to 10 breaths, then switch. “You can point and flex the foot or circle the ankle around while you hold this for some bonus joint mobility work,” DiNardo said.
You can also treat yourself to a neck massage. Start by dropping your ear to your right shoulder, then take two fingers to the top of your neck behind your left ear.
“Find the little valley that runs down your neck — technically the sternocleidomastoid muscle,” DiNardo said. Gently apply pressure, pausing to massage any area that feels tight, and repeat on the other side.
Pack for in-flight wellness
Travel and fitness professionals both swear by the power of hydration for saving everything from your skin to your sleep during a flight. Pack your own bottle so you don’t have to rely on the beverage cart’s occasional tiny cups of water.
Borden also travels with a ROLLGA De-Puffing Kit, an 8-piece set she designed with the company. While the foam roller can take up space in your carry-on, some key components are small and helpful for rolling out the bottom of your feet. (A lacrosse ball will also work for rolling out your feet and neck, Borden said.)
A foot rub is more impactful than it sounds. “You have a fascial band that wraps around your entire body, and this fascial band becomes loosened when you roll out your feet,” Borden said. As a result, you will feel less tight in your calves, hamstring and back.