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Keeping Healthy While Flying

Advice for travelers who want to stay healthy on those long, cramped airplane flights.
By
WebMD Feature

The only thing separating many travelers from their energy-sapping work environment and that longed-for annual restorative vacation is an airplane ride. But if they haven't prepared well, that time in the sky -- anywhere from a couple of hours to the equivalent of a day or more when crossing hemispheres and multiple time zones - can actually be, as far as the human body is concerned, a sojourn to hell.

"The important thing people need to realize about an airplane cabin is it's really not a healthy environment," says Leslie Kaminoff, a yoga therapist and breathing specialist in New York. Kaminoff points out that the pressure in an airplane cabin at cruising altitude may make passengers feel like they are at about 8,000 feet, as though they were high up in the mountains.

"Just sitting and breathing in that environment is a challenge to the system," Kaminoff says. "People don't realize they're at 8,000 feet of pressure and breathing is more labored. In the cabin, there's less available oxygen in the air. This puts an added load on the system, which is trying to get the required amount of oxygen into the bloodstream."

Another factor that may disturb breathing is the air's diminished humidity, which is generally below 25%, in contrast to a comfortable home environment where the humidity level is at about 35%, says Kaminoff. He suggests long, easy, deep breaths.

But relaxed, efficient breathing is not enough.

Be Active

Another risk during air travel is developing leg clots or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It's also known as "economy-class syndrome" -- a condition often brought about during long flights. Periods of immobility increase the risk of DVTs because sitting and leg room are cramped.

Other risks for developing leg clots include dehydration and low cabin pressure, according to the American Heart Association.

"You want to create a situation where your legs are moving and the muscles are contracting," says Kaminoff. "The deep veins in your legs have one-way valves, where blood can only move toward the heart. The only thing that gets that venous blood from the lower body back up to the heart is muscle contraction."

Kaminoff does not advise the kind of exertion that comes from doing "deep knee bends in the back of the plane." Instead, he encourages plane travelers to contract their calf muscles.

"Your calves are often called your second heart because of the role they play in helping pump venous blood from the lower extremities," he notes. Something as simple as tapping the feet will do nicely; this type of movement will also create movement in the shins and thighs, and even in the hip joint.

There's another way to encourage movement. "If you just keep drinking water you will be fine, because you have to get up and use the lavatory," Kaminoff says.

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