Long Flight? Here's How to Stay Healthy and Sane

For most people, the only thing pleasant about a long-haul flight is that it's a precursor to (hopefully) a fantastic destination. Spending hours and hours listening to the ambient roar of a plane's engine (or having that kid behind you kicking the seat) can feel like torture.

Keep yourself busy to prevent focusing on the clock during your long flight. (Image: izusek/E+/GettyImages)

There are ways, however, to mitigate the discomfort and health risks of a long flight that'll leave you feeling less daunted by the thought your upcoming ride in the sky. Plus, you'll arrive at your next locale ready to take on the world.

1. Select a Good Seat

Where you choose to sit on the plane can either help or hurt your chances of enjoying your flight. South African Air Force pilot LJ Monareng recommends choosing the window seat if you're short or want to sleep most of the time and an aisle seat if you're tall or know you'll need to get up more frequently.

"The window seat offers neck support while you sleep," he says. "If you choose an aisle seat, remember to bring a travel pillow. If you need extra leg room, choose a seat close to the emergency exits."

Jeremy O'Kennedy, M.D., former military flight surgeon, aviation medicine physician and dermatology resident based in Johannesburg, South Africa, cautions again getting an aisle seat or sitting near the restroom if you hope to get some sleep.

"Restroom areas are where people congregate and can cause a lot of potential noise and crowding irritation," he says. If you need to be near the restroom, opt for a seat three to four aisles away from the toilet. "Over the course of 16 hours, the facility takes more than it can handle and is prone to giving off an unpleasant smell." And no one wants to be near that if they can help it.

2. Move and Stretch

It's tempting to sleep for long periods at a time thinking it'll make time fly. But sleeping the whole time — if you're one of those who are able to — puts you at greater risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT, or a blood clot in the leg) and possibly a life-threatening pulmonary embolism (when a blood clot becomes dislodged from the leg, forming an embolus, which can then lodge itself in the lungs), says Dr. O'Kennedy.

So it's essential to move. When you sit still for hours with your legs hanging down, gravity is working against your veins' attempt to return blood to the heart, and your muscles aren't contracting to help either, Dr. O'Kennedy says. Walking around or stretching helps get the blood flowing and prevents it from stagnating.

The most common early symptoms of DVT include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness to pressure
  • Warmth or redness of the leg

Dr. O'Kennedy advises getting up from your seat at least once every hour and walking up the aisle or to the restroom. While you're in the aisle, try a standing quad stretch or calf raises to get your blood flowing even more. (Just be sure not to disturb the people around you!)

If you're stuck in your seat, at least do some leg muscle contraction exercises. For instance, lift up your toes while keeping your feet flat and hold for 30 seconds. Or press down onto the cabin floor with your toes for 30 seconds. You can also try ankle rolls, a seated forward fold or a modified wall/chair sit (lifting your butt off the chair and pressing all your weight into your feet and back). Repeat hourly at the very least.

Drink up before, during and after your long flight. (Image: stock_colors/E+/GettyImages)

3. Stay Hydrated

Dehydration is bad for your health — and the effects are exaggerated when you're 26,000 feet above sea level. "A dehydrated person's blood is 'sticky' and clots more easily," says Dr. O'Kennedy.

Blood that clots more easily will make you more susceptible to a DVT. "The low humidity in an airplane also leads to dehydration as we lose fluids through breathing and evaporation from the skin," says general practitioner Eliz-Mari Delport from the Hatmed Travel Clinic in Pretoria, South Africa.

Drink water (about a half a gallon throughout the course of the day) to keep hydrated, rather than coffee or alcohol, which will only leave you feeling more parched.

And there's another benefit to drinking plenty of water: "The more we drink fluids, the more we have to get up and walk to the restroom, the less our DVT risk," Dr. O'Kennedy says. The color of your urine is a good way to gauge if you're drinking enough water. Urine should be transparent, says Dr. Delport. If not, your water intake is insufficient. She also recommends lip balm, moisturizing lotion and nasal spray to counter the effects of dehydration and low humidity in the aircraft.

4. Get Some Shut-Eye

But you can't go the whole time without sleeping. So taking naps in hourlong increments before you get up to stretch is a good idea. However, not everyone is able to sleep on a long flight.

Your brain actually decides when or if you fall asleep by relying on certain signals like light, touch, sound and temperature, says Dr. O'Kennedy. Your brain needs a simple, single-frequency background sound, darkness or dimmed light and a comfortable resting position at a slightly cooler temperature, he says.

To make things more conducive to catching a catnap, Dr. O'Kennedy recommends adjusting your seat so it's as flat as possible, switching off your overhead light and basing your sleep schedule around the dimming of the cabin lights. If it's still too bright, try an eye mask. And get warm and comfy with a blanket (usually provided in-flight) and travel pillow.

Remember that worrying about not being able to fall asleep won't help. "Relax, empty your mind," says Dr. O'Kennedy.

5. Distract Yourself

"Generate your own interest about the mechanics and history of the type of aircraft you're flying in," says Dr. O'Kennedy. "You could also familiarize yourself with the flight route and significant places you're flying over. Or people watch — without being obvious or rude — and guess your fellow travelers' life stories and occupations," he says.

If the aforementioned don't appeal, there are options aplenty to keep you distracted. Dr. Delport recommends downloading inspiring podcasts before your flight and think of the 16 hours in the sky sans Wi-Fi as "me time." An audiobook is also an effective way to pass the time. Or get lost in that book you've always wanted to read but have been putting off.

Download a new series to your tablet before the flight and binge to your heart's content — without feeling guilty! Try your hand at adult coloring books. They're surprisingly therapeutic and rewarding. Or tackle a crossword puzzle or 10, if you're so inclined.

Catch up on tasks you've been procrastinating about, such as handwriting a letter to a loved one, compiling a presentation, planning or putting all your photos into folders. But, whatever you do, cautions O'Kennedy, do not keep looking at your watch!

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