When you really think about it, flying is perhaps not the healthiest of activities! You find yourself sitting in a cramped metal tube with hundreds of other passengers suspended over thirty thousand feet in the air. Whilst breathing in semi-recirculated air, you are exposed to an atmosphere of low oxygen, low humidity and an 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 gets turned upside down. After 12 hours in the air you feel like you’ve gone 12 rounds with a peak Mike Tyson.
This is the reality for millions of air passengers around the world. In this article we will give 21 tips to help keep you in better shape when flying long-haul and try to reduce your risk of falling ill during travel.
Preparation: Planning Your Flight
Choosing the right flight time and aircraft type can make a big difference on a trip.
1. Fly convenient hours – When planning your trip think about flying at the most convenient time possible – 4am departures or arrivals can be very tiring indeed. Sometimes comfort needs to be prioritised even if that means spending a little bit extra on the flight.
2. Fly new generation aircraft – Airliners are able to cruise at altitudes significantly higher than the summit of Mount Everest. When you are up at altitude the atmospheric pressure becomes much lower.
So for passenger comfort 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 think about flying on one of these new aircraft types. As well as mitigating altitude effects, they have considerably quieter engines and many passengers feel more comfortable on board.
3. Fly premium if possible – 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 with better sleep opportunity. However some premium travellers have an attitude to gorge on food and alcohol to maximise the business class experience! If you want to stay healthy that’s probably not the best way to go.
Just Before Flying
4. Healthy habits before flying – 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.
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. That means switching off phones/screens and going to bed at a reasonable hour.
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 (weather permitting of course) which will give your vitamin D levels a boost.
5. Choose the best seat – It may be possible to pre-purchase an extra legroom seat before flying. Otherwise, in the days or 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 airline seat options for your class of travel.
6. Stay relaxed at the airport – Get to the airport in good time. Remain calm during the check-in and security procedures. Once airside do try and take a walk around the terminal to stretch your legs immediately prior to flying.
Don’t forget to keep any essential medication with your hand luggage rather than in a checked bags.
During the Flight
7. Board last – If flying long-haul, be one of the last people to board in order to minimise the time you actually spend on the aircraft.
8. Comfy clothing – Wear loose fitting clothing made from natural breathable fibres and dress in layers so that you can adjust to the varying temperature. Loosen or take off shoes on longer flights as ankles normally swell up a little.
9. Hydration, hydration, hydration – 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 reusable 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 about 1 litre every 4 hours (that’s about a glass every hour).
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.
10. Drink herbal tea – 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 (such as Australia) have strict import regulations so it may not be possible to bring unused tea bags through customs.
11. Moisturise – Keep your face moisturised by using a mist sprayer or perhaps coconut oil, jojoba oil or a high quality natural face cream. Lip balm can also keep lips moist. If you have sinus issues then bring a nasal saline spray.
Remember, liquids are allowed on board if in containers of less than 100ml.
12. Eat lightly on board – Don’t overeat and avoid any sugary and starchy foods. If you are not keen on processed airline meals which often contain additives and preservatives then bring 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.
13. Fast in the air – 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.
14. Move during the flight – 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. By drinking water regularly you will need to get up to go to the bathroom anyhow.
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.
15. Flight stockings – You may also choose to wear special compression stockings to further reduce your chance of developing deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) and blood clots.
16. Keep hands clean – Wash your hands and fingernails 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. It could even include the airline blankets and pillows which are wrapped in plastic.
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. You could consider bringing your own lightweight blanket and pillow.
17. Turn on the air vent – 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. Note however that many newer planes no longer have air vents fitted.
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!
18. Reduce motion sickness – 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.
19. Radiation issues – 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 effects of WiFi is not well known at this point. Most airlines have on-board WiFi as standard these days, so it’s difficult to avoid it.
20. Help your ears – 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.
21. Healthy habits post-flight – 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. Don’t forget that hotel rooms are also a haven of bacteria so take appropriate precautions there as well…!
Following some of the above tips will hopefully ensure that you have a healthy flight.
Article originally published back in 2006. Last updated January 13 2020.
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.