by Crista Worthy
I love to travel, don’t you? When you immerse yourself in a different culture, you return home with a different perspective. And when you reach out to the locals on your travels, even if it’s just with a smile, you build bridges across the miles that normally separate you.
I have been a private pilot, fitness instructor and nutrition counselor for decades. To fully enjoy my travels, I take care of my health year-round. Most of my flights are short — two hours or less. But longer trips can be hard on the body. To help prevent problems, I’ve developed a special routine for long flights to help mitigate the effects, which range from simple stiffness to more serious conditions like deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
What Is DVT?
Any time you sit for too long without moving, seat pressure on the backs of your legs will compress your deep veins, impeding blood flow. Pilots tend to be a bit more susceptible to DVT because they sit for hours in a cockpit. But as a passenger, you may not be moving around much, either. Even sitting for long periods at your desk all day is not a good idea. Pregnancy, being overweight, dehydration, taking hormones and recently having had surgery or cancer all increase your risk.
When blood pools in your legs, it can form clots in a deep vein. If this clot breaks off from the vein wall, it can move through the right side of the heart and get caught in the arteries that go to your lungs. A pulmonary artery clot can kill instantly, as with a pulmonary embolism (PE), or grow slowly and kill over time.
Before Your Flight
So how can you avoid becoming a victim? Here’s what I do. In the days leading up to a long flight, I exercise daily (as always), but I take extra care to drink plenty of fluids. My hematocrit (or blood platelet) levels tend to be high, so my doctor recommended I donate blood five days or so before a long flight. My doctor also recommended I take one baby aspirin per day, year-round, as aspirin helps prevent platelets from sticking together. To combat bloating, I watch my sodium intake for two days prior to the flight. Finally, before boarding the plane, whether my own Cessna or an airliner, I don compression socks or stockings. They’re specially designed to prevent blood from pooling in the legs. They also feel good and keep my ankles from swelling — who wants swollen ankles slowing you down when you hit the ground at your destination?
During Your Flight
On your flight, there are more things you can do to keep yourself healthy. Start at the gate by standing and walking around — you’ll be sitting soon enough! Dr. Brent Blue, a Board-certified family physician who is also a pilot and aeromedical examiner, advises passengers not to drink alcohol when flying because it causes dehydration. (Of course, pilots are prohibited from drinking while flying and for at least eight hours before!) Dr. Blue also highly recommends compression socks and a baby aspirin both the day before and the day of the flight.
During a flight, be sure to get up and walk around every couple of hours. Drink plenty of water as dehydration causes thicker blood. Isometric exercises will help move blood and prevent stiffness. While seated on the plane be sure to keep your legs feeling engaged by doing small exercises. Start by extending one foot under the seat in front of you and then straighten your leg, tense your leg muscles, and try to lift the seat up with the top of your foot. Hold for 10 seconds, and then do the other leg; repeat several times an hour. When I’m flying in a small plane, I stomp my feet on the floor and, if the air is smooth, even push myself up out of the seat so I’m half standing. I hold that position for a while before I sit back down again to get my blood flowing as much as possible.
After Your Flight
For a few weeks after a long flight, stay active and pay attention to your body for any indications of a clot. Dr. Blue urges, “Don’t brush off a pain in your leg or shoulder blade as just a muscle pain. If you have any symptoms, go to the emergency room and tell them about your flight and suspicions of DVT or a PE. They can use ultrasound or CAT scans to see what’s going on inside.”
Get Fit, Stay Fit to Travel Healthy
I’m 60 now, old enough to have experienced the changes of aging, yet I still wear the same size 6 pants I did at 20. There are two secrets to staying — or getting — fit: moving and having control over your food. You have to find what works for you at your age, but moving is key. Eating out all the time makes it hard to control your diet, so I save restaurants for special times only (like when I’m traveling!). Try my recommendations above for your next long journey, but talk to your doctor first before donating blood or starting an aspirin regimen. Bon voyage!
Crista Worthy is a private pilot, world champion bodybuilder, personal trainer and freelance writer. She writes about aviation, travel, wildlife and health issues from her home in Idaho.