Travel can put you in some pretty uncomfortable positions. Take it from me: I’ve racked up thousands of frequent flier miles crammed into coach, spent multiple nights tossing and turning on berths in India’s sleeper trains, and somehow drove from New York to California in a whirlwind four days while still sneaking in a quick detour to the Grand Canyon. It’s all been worth it, even though travel can take a toll on your body in the form of a stiff neck, achy shoulders, tight calves, and sore feet. But here’s a little secret: Exercise before a long flight can go a long way toward keeping the aches and pains of travel at bay.
Enter the pre-travel workout—a series of simple moves and stretches that can prep your body for the physical challenges of globe-trotting. Spending as little as 30 minutes getting your heart rate up and stretching out your muscles before a long-haul flight or road trip will help you feel rejuvenated before your vacation even begins, no matter how much your luggage weighs or how long that fasten seatbelt sign is lit.
To find out the best moves to include in your pre-travel workout, we sat down with Jessica Schreiner, MS in exercise science and mind–body manager at Exhale Spa at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. She sees hundreds of travelers sweat it out each week and has some tips on exactly what kinds of pre-travel exercises and stretches work best for jet-setters and road warriors.
The Aches and Pains of Travel
Chances are high that you’re already intimately familiar with the aches and pains that come with travel. Your shoulders get sore from carrying heavy bags, your hips tighten from so many hours seated, your feet throb from endless hours of walking, and let’s not even talk about the tension in your neck. But muscle and joint stiffness are just the start of how travel can impact your health.
One of the biggest health concerns of sitting for extended periods of time while driving or flying is the development of deep vein thrombosis. This condition involves the formation blood clots in your body, typically in your legs. Complications from deep vein thrombosis can be life-threatening.
Leg and foot swelling is also a common symptom of people on flights and road trips. Sitting for long periods of time tends to decrease your circulation. While not a major health concern, swelling can be uncomfortable for travelers.
Furthermore, there are lower oxygen levels while traveling 35,000 feet above the earth. A lack of oxygen can cause changes in memory and reduce your ability to think clearly.
But for people bitten by the travel bug, the health risks of long hours in the car or in the air don’t compare to the thrill of exploring this great planet. Fortunately, making the experience healthier and safer for our bodies is actually pretty easy with proper hydration, a pre-travel workout, and some movement along the way.
“Hydrating and a workout before a flight can reduce those symptoms,” says Schreiner. “A pre-travel workout will help with circulation. If you’re active before you travel, it will help with blood flow and reduce swelling.”
Pre-Flight Exercises to Get You Through Long-Haul Journeys
Between packing, picking up last-minute essentials, finalizing your itinerary, and taking care of your home, your travel schedule leading up to any vacation is super hectic. But here’s one last thing you have to add to your to-do list: the pre-travel workout. Your body will thank you for it.
“Within 24 hours of your trip, find a workout, like Exhale’s barre class, that combines both strength training and stretching. You’ll stimulate your immune system and promote circulation, making for less muscle stiffness while on the road,” Schreiner says. “The resistance exercises will raise your metabolic rate, resulting in increased calorie burning even while you’re stationary.”
I’ll be the first to admit that it would be a true miracle if I could find the time to hit up my favorite fitness studio the day before a flight or road trip. The good news is that you can do some pre-flight exercises right at home (or even in the airport if you’re really pressed for time).
What makes for an effective pre-travel workout?
Strength and resistance exercises that stretch you out from head to toe make for an effective workout before traveling, says Schreiner. The best pre-flight exercises include squats, reverse lunges, planks, and push-ups. These moves will also help prep your body for a long road trip by limbering up the areas of your body that are most likely to stiffen up while you’re seated.
“Do 10 to 15 reps of each exercise [above]. You can make it a circuit and do three or four rounds of each exercise. You might also want to flow through some vinyasas, as doing some yoga exercises can open up your hips and increase your shoulder mobility,” she says.
Doing the pre-travel workout ahead of your trip will put you in good shape for the big day. But you’re not done yet!
In the moments leading up to your departure, keep moving (consider this the extended pre-travel workout). You’re about to spend hours in a sedentary position—no need to extend the time your body’s still by plopping down in the airport chair or chilling out at the kitchen table before hitting the road. If you needed an excuse to do a little pre-travel souvenir shopping, this would be it. Walk around as much as you can in the airport instead of remaining sedentary.
While on the plane or in the car…
Who doesn’t get a little nervous at the start of a big trip? There’s a lot to think about, but smooth, calm breathing can help bring down the level of stress you might be feeling, says Schreiner.
“Practicing breathing and meditation exercises before a trip can help reduce travel-related stress. Meditation techniques can train your mind to trigger a relaxation response to stress, resulting in lower blood pressure, decreased heart rate, and reduced anxiety,” she says.
To practice meditative breathing during your pre-travel workout, focus on deep breaths in and out of your nose. Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, then exhale for four seconds. Repeat the exercises until you hit seven seconds per breath, and feel the stress begin to melt away.
And the physical side of your pre-travel workout doesn’t stop when you’re actually traveling. Plan to stretch your legs as frequently as you can. Taking a rest stop on a road trip or a stroll in the airplane aisle often can ward off a lot of travel-related pain (and help keep you sane!). It can also reduce your risk of developing deep vein thrombosis.
“I recommend moving every 30 minutes. Even if you can’t get up, you can still find some movement in your legs at your seat. Circling your ankles and bringing movement to your lower body can reduce swelling,” says Schreiner.
And while you’re in the car or plane, plan to practice a few seated stretches to keep your muscles happy.
“From your seat, loosen tension in the neck by mindfully rolling the head from side-to-side, or gently pulling the neck toward the shoulder. Seated spinal twists and lateral side stretches will also help keep the spine limber,” she says.
Steal some extra space to spread out whenever you can. Insist on taking a break during a road trip, or hang out in the back of the plane, and get ready to stretch.
“When standing, bring your legs wide, interlace your fingers behind your back, and fold over slightly with bent knees to stretch the hamstrings, lower back, chest, and shoulders,” says Schreiner. “To stretch the muscles of your hip flexors and relieve tension in your lower back, step one foot forward into a lunge position and hold with the front knee bent and back leg straight. If you have enough space, take a classic downward dog pose to elongate the spine, open the shoulders, and stretch the calves and hamstrings.”
Sure, you might look a little strange busting out your yoga flow when you’re on the go, but keeping your body limber will pay off in an ache-free vacation. And it looks far less strange than the maneuvers you’ll have to pull when you have stiff muscles from a long flight.
Travel Exercises For When You Reach Your Destination
No one wants to kick off their vacation with tight hips and sore shoulders. But despite faithfully practicing your pre-travel workout, your body still might need a little love after a long flight or road trip.
“As soon as you get to your hotel room, practice inversions. I like [to lay] on the floor with my butt against the wall and put my legs up the wall. Lifting your legs above your heart can help the blood recirculate,” says Schreiner.
Spas and hotel gyms will typically have more useful resources to help you recover from a big trip.
“An acupuncture treatment can greatly assist with any post-travel symptoms such as jet lag, swelling, pain, and fatigue,” says Schreiner. “Also, take a yoga class to relieve total body aches and pains, regain flexibility, and realign the spine. You’ll be ready to conquer it all feeling restored, centered, and energized.”
A pre-travel workout and some post-travel care can help you feel ready to take on the world, no matter where you are or how many hours you spent in a seat getting there.