What to Do on a Long Flight to Feel Like a Human When You Land
Tips for long flights
As fun as overseas travel is, the long-haul flights that get you there and back are exhausting—and they can take a real toll on your body. In addition to loss of sleep and dehydrating conditions, sitting still for an extended period of time can cause your muscles to cramp up. It can also increase your risk for a type of blood clot called deep vein thrombosis, which can cause life-threatening pulmonary embolisms and in rare cases, stroke.
But long flights don’t have to wreak havoc on your body. Consider this expert advice on how to go gentle into that long flight.
Bring a pillow
A travel pillow is well worth the space it will occupy in your carry-on. Whether you’re planning for some serious shuteye or a long movie marathon, "it’s a great idea to use a lumbar support or neck pillow, especially if the flight is longer than six hours," says Sabrina Bren, an assistant professor at Columbia University School of Nursing and nurse practitioner at ColumbiaDoctors Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Group. "Investing in a supportive pillow can promote more restful sleep and prevent discomfort that may result from poor posture." We like the Muji Well-Fitted Microbead Neck Cushion ($35, amazon.com), which works just as well tucked behind your back as it does your neck. Bonus: the cotton cover can be removed and washed.
Pack smart sleep accessories
Kevin Hopkins, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, recommends travelers pack a small eye mask and earplugs for overnight flights. "They can help block out ambient noise and light which make it more challenging to fall asleep," he says. Many aircrafts offer complimentary redeye kits that include a basic eye mask, but if you feel like upgrading, try the Alaska Bear Natural Silk Sleep Mask ($10; amazon.com). It’s lightweight and has an adjustable headband, which offers a bit more comfort by keeping pressure off your eyelids. And it’s not necessary to shell out for a pricey set of noise-cancelling headphones: Dr. Hopkins says even foam earplugs should do the trick by decreasing most cabin noise.
Claim an aisle seat
Yes, it may slightly up your risk of being bumped by the beverage cart, but aisle seats have some definite benefits. "It is essential to walk around the airplane aisle as much as possible for a few minutes at least every hour to prevent blood clots and cramping," Brem says. She recommends frequent calf and quadriceps stretches, which you can do even while sitting down. "Staying active on the plane as much as possible is essential to prevent blood clots and cramping."
According to a recent review published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the overall incidence of symptomatic venous thromboembolism (the dangerous disease that includes both pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis) in the month after a four-plus-hour flight is one in 4,600 flights. What’s more, that risk increases by 18% for every two additional hours in the air. The authors of the review note that aisle seating promotes mobilization.
If you’re worried you’ll have trouble falling asleep on the plane (as well as adjusting your internal clock to the local bedtime), you may want to pack melatonin supplements in your carry-on. A 2002 research review found that daily doses of up to 5 mg of oral melatonin (a hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle) before a trip can be effective at preventing or reducing jet lag if you’re crossing five or more time zones.
To prep for your trip, Brem suggests taking melatonin 30 minutes before your new bedtime for five consecutive days before you leave. You may also find melatonin helpful for adjusting to your new schedule once you land, says Dr. Hopkins. But consult your physician first—melatonin can have side effects, and should be used as only a short-term sleep solution.
You’ll probably be tempted to indulge as soon as you start your trip (after all, what are vacations for?). But unsurprisingly, experts urge moderation. "Eating well-balanced meals with lean protein and complex carbohydrates is very important to help adjust to a new time zone," Brem says. This is true both on the plane and when you land. When mealtime comes around at your destination, Brem recommends eating a small amount—even if you’re not hungry—to help your body adjust. She also notes that it’s important to avoid processed foods and foods with added sugar, since those can cause spikes followed by rapid crashes in blood sugar—leading to more fatigue.
Bring a water bottle
According to the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA), you should aim to drink about eight ounces of water for every hour you’re in the air (humidity in the cabin is usually around 20%, putting you at increased risk for dehydration). Water is a better choice than alcohol or caffeine, both of which can worsen the effects of dehydration as well as disrupt sleep.
"Most people don’t drink enough water when they are at home, let alone when they travel," Dr. Hopkins says. Packing a water bottle and drinking it throughout the flight will help prevent dehydration, he explains. "This is generally going to be more effective than guzzling a glass of water once you’re already a little dry and trying to make up for it."
Resist the urge to nap after landing
Once you’ve finally reached your destination, do your best to stay awake and acclimate to the local time zone. "In general, it’s best to avoid napping," says Brem. If absolutely necessary, she recommends limiting your naps to no more than 30 minutes, and making sure it’s done at least eight hours before your planned bedtime. "Naps longer than 30 minutes or too close to bedtime can cause difficulty falling or staying asleep," she explains.