Travel has taught me many lessons over the years. I’ve come out of my shell, seen places I never thought I’d visit, and met people who have shown me how to embrace the unfamiliar. However, I’m not a full-time traveler. In fact, I work a full-time job like everyone else in a very special field: physical therapy. In the few years that I’ve been working, I’ve seen and learned things that have really helped me on the road and in my personal life. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks for staying healthy on the road.
What Do Physical Therapists Do?
Before I begin, I would like to clarify what I do for a living. Physical therapists (P.T.) teach you how to move in a pain-free way while restoring your body’s optimal movement. We educate you on how to be proactive about your health. Furthermore, P.T.’s use movement and exercise as a way to treat certain ailments. This form of conservative treatment helps people avoid overusing pain medications or resorting to invasive surgical procedures. I’m just scratching the surface here. P.T.’s are also highly respected because we not only help people put themselves back together, but advocate for the prevention of disease and injury.
With all of that out in the open, here are a few tips to help you stay healthy during long periods of transit.
Stay Hydrated At All Times
If I can recommend only one thing, it’s that you must stay hydrated while you’re traveling. You don’t need to be a genius to understand the importance of water and it’s necessity to sustain life.
Without getting too scientific, water helps people maintain their levels of endurance, reduce onset of muscle cramps, decrease fatigue, and improve their body’s temperature regulation. All of this is important for those adventurers who like to hike up mountains, spend time in extreme environments (deserts and tundras alike), and even swim in the ocean. Just because you’re spending time in water doesn’t mean that you absorb it through osmosis. If anything, exercising in water is more deceptive because you don’t notice your body’s level of perspiration and may ignore the effects of dehydration.
I’ll give you a personal example. I went snorkeling with humpback whales and manta rays in Western Australia this past summer. It was a wild and crazy adventure, and one that I will never forget. However, just 10 minutes in the open water made me start to hyperventilate and shake. I’ve been around the ocean my entire life, but nothing could have prepared me for Australia’s currents. Working against the strong waves and trying to keep up with my group made me use up more energy than I realized. Did I mention that this was all in open ocean? I didn’t realize my level of exhaustion until the crew served us snacks and I revitalized myself with a few cups of water and tea.
Finally, dehydration can affect your level of cognition. This goes for anyone, whether you’re an adventurer or just enjoy a leisurely stroll. If you go several hours without water, you’ll notice that your mind gets foggy. This is very important to people who spend a lot of time in unfamiliar environments. I’m hyper-aware when I travel, so I always make sure to load up on water to keep my mind sharp.
Finally, hydration counteracts the effects of JETLAG. The occasional glass of wine is fine; in fact, a small glass helps me sleep better on flights. However, alcohol dehydrates the body. Combined with the effects of being on a plane for several hours at a time (all that recycled air dries out the skin and heightens the effects of dehydration), you shouldn’t rely on alcohol and salty snacks to get through a long flight. When in doubt, water is always the best option.
If you want to read more about the benefits of water, here’s a great research article from the National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/
Keeping Your Spine Healthy
Chronic back pain has plagued my life for years. I have managed it with the occasional Advil, walking, and therapeutic exercises. I’m sure many travelers have had back pain during long journeys. I sure have, and it really sucks when you’re trying to get comfortable in confined spaces. Here are a few suggestions for counteracting back pain during long periods of travel.
- Support your spine: I can’t stress this enough. On every flight and overland journey, I’ve seen people falling asleep with their heads hanging over their chest. All I ever think is, “Man, are they going to be sorry when they wake up.” Make sure your low back and neck are supported well.
One thing I use whenever I sit at my desk is a lumbar roll to support my low back, as well as a stool to settle my feet. Can’t fit a stool into your carry-on? (Of course not, who is this girl giving advice?) Instead, I use my backpack as a footrest because it’s always placed under the seat in front of me. To support my low back on flights, I sometimes roll up a sweater or blanket and place it behind the small of my back.
When I was preparing for my trip to Australia, I had to find a pillow that could easily fit in amongst the 15 kg of items I was allowed to bring on my tour through Western Australia. During my research of the millions of camping equipment (did I mention I went camping for the first time in Australia?), I found the Kohbi Sport Compressible Camping and Travel Pillow. The pillow folds in on itself and can be used as a lumbar roll or as support for your neck.
- Walk around the cabin: Sitting has become the biggest evil in our lives as human beings. Looking back through history, one can’t help but notice that humans have become progressively more sedentary in our day to day activities. Sitting at a desk, or even on a plane, for hours on end is bad for us. Whenever I speak to my patients, I always tell them that walking is the best thing they can do for their health. I recommend getting up at least once every hour if you’re not spending that time sleeping. Pause your movie, stretch, and take a quick stroll around the cabin.
- Ask your physical therapist for exercises that fit your needs: As I already mentioned, I suffer from chronic back pain and cannot spend hours on end in one position. I stretch in my cramped coach seat, in the aisle, and while queuing for the bathroom. There are a variety of exercises one can do to prevent muscle soreness and joint stiffness in the smallest of spaces. Consult with a professional before you leave for a long trip. P.T.’s complete thorough evaluations before creating exercise programs pertaining to each individual’s needs.
Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT’s)
If you’ve ever boarded a flight, you’re probably familiar with the video at the beginning with the flight attendant advising you to move around to prevent blood clots, a.k.a. deep vein thrombosis. These occur when people remain in one position for a prolonged period of time. DVT’s occur frequently in travelers boarding long flights. Here are a few precautions you can take for your next journey.
First of all, in addition to walking around the cabin and switching positions, I would also do clot-preventing exercises. They may include ankle pumps (moving your feet up and down) and straightening out your knees in a seated position, granted you have the leg room. These exercises are great ways to ensure good circulation.
Second of all, wear loose and comfortable shoes. Tight sneakers or heels that place your feet in uncomfortable positions are bad for circulation. (I’m totally calling out the girls I see boarding flights in stilettos.) My husband wore very tight sneakers on our flight back from Australia, and didn’t move around nearly enough despite my advice to get out of his chair. You can judge the results for yourself.
Compression stockings are another way to counteract swelling and clots. There’s a lot of discussion about the actual benefits of compression stockings and whether they prevent DVTs. While I’m still not clear on their prophylactic benefits, this article provided high quality evidence that compression stockings reduce cases of “symptomless DVT’s.” Many people don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of DVTs and often ignore their presence until it’s too late. This can be dangerous because DVTs can dislodge and move towards the heart and lungs, leading to fatal effects.
What are the signs of a DVT?
- Swelling in the leg or arm (yes, they can also occur in arms)
- Local redness or discolored skin
- Warm temperature over the affected area
- Pain in the affected limb, which may sometimes be felt only when standing or walking
What do you do if you have a DVT? Don’t panic: getting worked up never helps any situation. Remain calm and stay in a resting position to avoid dislodging the clot. Sometimes, a DVT can break up on its own. Once you reach your destination, consult a doctor immediately. They’ll likely prescribe a blood thinner to break up the clot and prevent it from moving towards your vital organs. Here’s a great article by the CDC describing prevention and effects of DVT’s.
Not everyone gets a DVT on long journeys, but there are some people who are at higher risk than others. If you have a complex medical history, or are just worried about the possibility of developing a clot, consult with your physician to discuss preventative steps.
Importance of International Health Insurance
I believe in giving everyone options so I’ve included a short list of travel insurances you can use while on the road. If there’s anything I feel the need to emphasize, it’s that you should NEVER travel without medical insurance. It doesn’t matter where you go or for how long. If you’re traveling outside of your home country, travel insurance will cover you while you’re on the road. Not only will travel insurance make sure you don’t leave your vacation with a mountain of debt, it will also cover emergency evacuation & repatriation, as well as trip interruption and baggage losses.
- World Nomads: I have been using this company since 2015. They offer competitive prices, great coverage, and are highly recommended by top names like Lonely Planet and NatGeo Adventure.
- Travel Guard: Recommended by Intrepid Travel, with whom I traveled to Australia. Intrepid has high safety standards, so I trust their judgment when I include this company on my list. **Note: I have not used Travel Guard and recommend researching their coverage before purchasing any of their plans.
- Check with domestic insurances for international plans: Cigna and Blue Cross Blue Shield have international plans. Call your medical insurance company and ask about their packages. As always, research before you commit.
- If you’re taking a tour, ask if they include travel insurance in their overall price.
After working in two hospitals in South Florida, I’ve met many travelers who experienced medical emergencies. Your health may be impacted in countless ways, whether you are at home or on the road. For peace of mind, make sure you have travel insurance so you receive optimal care and don’t incur any financial debt in the process.
I initially had several other issues that I wanted to discuss. However, in the process of writing this post, I realized there’s just too much information to include in one article. So I’ve decided to break it up into several posts that I’ll be updating throughout the year. For now, I hope you take this advice in stride and use it to your benefit. Here’s to staying safe and healthy on the road.
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