Taking a long-haul flight is perhaps not the most healthy of activities. Think about it – there you are sitting in a cramped metal tube with hundreds of other passengers whilst suspended some thirty thousand feet in the air breathing semi-recirculated air. You are exposed to an atmosphere of low oxygen and humidity and are at increased risk from pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.
On top of this you can spend hours not moving at all whilst consuming an unhealthy cocktail of processed food, alcohol, caffeine and sugar. And as you pass through multiple time zones your body clock is turned upside down.
In this article we give some tips to help keep you in better shape when flying long-haul and perhaps reduce your risk of falling ill during travel.
Preparation: Booking your flight
Airliners can cruise at altitudes significantly higher than the summit of Mount Everest. The further you climb the lower the atmospheric air pressure. This means that aircraft cabins need to be pressurised – not to ground level but usually at an altitude equivalent range of between 5,000 and 8,000 feet (1,500-2,400m).
The latest generation of aircraft – Airbus A380, Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 have cabin pressure altitudes at the lower end of that scale. If available on your flight route then consider flying on one of these new aircraft types. They have considerably quieter engines and many passengers feel more comfortable on board.
When searching for flights think about travelling at the most convenient time possible – 4am departures or arrivals can be very tiring indeed.
If you can afford it or have a stash of frequent flier miles then flying first or business class will give you more comfort and space on a long flight. However some premium travellers have an attitude to gorge on food and alcohol to “maximise” the experience!
The key to staying healthy throughout your trip is to support your immune system with a healthy diet, exercise and high quality supplements before you travel. Consider taking a combination such as a multi-supplement + fish oil + immune booster which we have personally had very good results with in helping keep colds at bay on long flights.
Stay well hydrated in the 2 days prior to travel by drinking plenty of water.
Always try to get a good night’s sleep the day before you fly. At bedtime put a drop of lavender oil on your temple or pillow which may help you relax.
You should also get some exercise before a long flight, preferably outdoors rather than in the gym. Go for a walk and get some fresh air and sunshine which will give your vitamin D levels a boost.
In the hours leading up to the flight choose a moment to get your online check-in done and select your seat. You may want to research the best seat options for your class of travel.
Get to the airport in good time and remain calm during the check-in and security procedures. Once airside do try and take a walk around the terminal to stretch your legs prior to flying.
During the flight
If flying long-haul, be one of the last people to board in order to minimise the time you actually spend on the aircraft.
Wear loose fitting clothing made from natural breathable fibres and dress in layers so that you can adjust to the varying temperature. Take off shoes on longer flights as ankles normally swell up a little. Keep your feet warm by using the extra pair of socks often provided by the airline.
Once on board, rule number 1 is to keep hydrated. Plane cabins can be very dry with humidity levels well under 20% – roughly equivalent to a tropical desert. Dehydration causes your mucus membranes to dry out which will make you more prone to bacteria and viruses.
If possible bring your own water on board either by purchasing at the terminal or bringing an empty bottle through security and refilling at an airport water fountain. Do not fill from taps in airplane toilets as there is a risk of E-coli and other nasties being present in the aircraft’s water tanks.
Try to drink water regularly throughout the entire flight, ideally 1 litre every 4 hours.
Avoid any drinks that can dehydrate you. That means no carbonated sodas, no alcohol and no caffeine (coffee and black tea). If you desperately need a caffeine shot then try green tea instead.
Consider bringing your own herbal tea bags on board and asking the flight attendant for some hot water. Better still bring an empty thermos flask and fill up at an airport café before flying.
Fennel tea and peppermint tea are good for digestion; redbush (rooibos) tea is good for circulation; chamomile tea will help you rest and relax. Do be aware that some countries (eg Australia) have strict import regulations so it may not be possible to bring unused tea bags through customs.
Keep your face moisturised – you can use a mist sprayer or perhaps coconut oil or jojoba oil. Consider using a high quality natural day cream or night cream such as these. Lip balm can also keep lips moist. Remember, liquids are allowed on board if in containers of less than 100ml.
Eat lightly on board and avoid any sugary and starchy foods. If you are not keen on processed airline meals which often contain additives and preservatives then consider bringing your own food or at least some fresh fruit.
Alternatively, eat a healthy, light meal on the ground before the flight – avoid junk food or any foods that give you gas such as beans, corn, chick peas, cabbage, lentils or onions. In the air bodily gases expand by a third and the digestion process slows down.
Consider fasting during the flight if you are worried about jet lag at your destination. It is thought that not eating on board can override your natural circadian body clock by delaying the onset of sleep. In addition, by not having to digest a meal the body’s immune system remains more active. We know a few regular business travellers who swear by fasting on long-haul flights.
During the flight walk up and down the aisle at least once every hour if you can – getting an aisle seat will make this more convenient.
Most airlines have a range of exercises to follow which can help your blood circulation. Check the in-flight magazine or entertainment system to find them. Beneficial exercises include lifting your calfs, rotating your ankles, tensing and relaxing various muscles and doing gentle stretches. Try not to cross your legs for prolonged periods.
You may also choose to wear special compression stockings to further reduce your chance of developing deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) and blood clots.
Keep your hands and fingernails clean by washing regularly with soap and water. Consider also using an antiseptic sanitiser gel – natural brands without chemicals are available. Try to avoid any unwashed hand contact with your mouth, nose and eyes.
Be aware that bugs and bacteria are present on many surfaces in an aircraft where people regularly touch. This obviously includes the toilet and toilet door handles – but also seats, armrests, seat trays, seat pockets, entertainment screens and controls, in-flight magazines etc.
Use a paper towel or tissue to turn off taps and open door handles after using the toilet. Some people may want to bring antibacterial wipes to clean surfaces around their seats.
People infected with colds and viruses can spread germs on the plane, particularly around neighbouring seats. To help deflect germs, turn on the overhead air vents to a medium flow and point the air to just in front of your face.
Wearing a surgical mask to prevent infection is also possible – this is quite a common sight in Asia, although you might look a bit odd on a Ryanair flight in Europe.
If you suffer from motion sickness then book a (window) seat near the wing and avoid the back of the plane. Try taking some ginger – either ginger root or another form such as crystalised ginger, ginger supplements or ginger tea. Don’t forget customs laws at your destination though.
Flying will give you exposure to slightly higher levels of solar and cosmic radiation than normal. Solar radiation effects can be reduced somewhat by flying at night.
A more controversial issue is the use of body scanner machines at airports. Some commentators and experts regard them as unsafe. If you are concerned, consider your legal right in some countries to opt-out and get a manual pat-down search – this is possible in the US and the UK but not in Australia.
Finally, the long-term health effect of in-flight WiFi is not well known at this point.
During the descent the rapid increase in air pressure can be painful for your ears. Help keep your Eustachian tubes open by swallowing, sucking a sweet, yawning or chewing gum. Or use the well known Valsalva maneuver by pinching your nose and blowing gently through it while closed.
In the hours after arrival make sure to go outside for a walk in fresh air. Some also swear by grounding their bare feet against a natural surface like sand or grass for a while – this can help reduce inflammation and infuses you with beneficial negative ions.
At the end of your post-flight arrival day prioritise on getting a good night’s sleep!
Following some of the above tips will hopefully ensure that you have a healthy flight.
Note: Article is for information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or instruction. Always consult your doctor or a qualified health professional on any health matters.