Those who frequently travel for business are no strangers to the stressors of being on the road. While we all know the health dangers of stress (high blood pressure, weight gain and difficulty concentrating among others), did you know traveling carries its own set of health risks? A study from Columbia University showed people who never traveled for business reported being healthier than those whose jobs frequently required them to be on the road (or in the air).
Here are the five most common ways travel can wreak havoc on your health:
1. Jet Lag. Travel across time zones interferes with the body's circadian rhythm (our biological clock). This, in turn, negatively affects our quality of sleep, creating the feeling we know as "jet lag". Washington-based physican William Kimbrough of One Medical Group says chronically sleep-deprived individuals perform similarly to those who are intoxicated, with decreased alertness and poor mental performance on complicated tasks. To avoid jet lag and regulate your body's circadian rhythm, Kimbrough recommends continuity in morning routines. "If you exercise first thing in the morning you can really help your body adjust to a new time zone quickly," if you continue that habit while travelling, says Kimbrough. Since the body's internal clock is driven by a small gland in the brain that monitors daylight, exposing yourself to natural light first thing in the morning triggers the body to know its daytime, allowing you adjust to your new time zone faster.
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2. Increased risk of illness. Exposure to individuals from various geographic areas carrying different germs can increase frequent traveler's risk of contracting illness. Fatigue and sleep deprivation during travel can also weaken the immune system, making you even more susceptible. Frequent hand washing and wiping down airplane tray tables and arm rests with an anti-bacterial wipe can also help. Kimbrough says staying hydrated during travel is also key to preventing illness. "The dry air on airplanes causes the mucous in your nose to dry up, making it more vulnerable to picking up germs," says Kimbrough. Fluids keep nasal passages moist and less prone to picking up germs.
3. Musculoskeletal conditions. Dr. Chad Laurence, a chiropractor based in Hockessin, Del., says poor ergonomics and cramped airplane seats can, in the long term, cause musculoskeletal conditions to develop. "The seats have no lumbar support and [they] force the neck and head forward, creating anterior head syndrome," says Laurence, who recommends placing a blanket or pillow behind your upper back and into the curve of your lower back. "This position allows your head to stay on the seat's headrest and pushes your shoulders forward while promoting the natural curves of your neck and lower back, reducing the likelihood of pain and stiffness."
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4. Muscle stiffness, spasms and pain. Sitting in a cramped position for hours can cause muscle stiffness, spasms, and pain. Laurence recommends doing some simple stretches to help offset the physical consequences on inactivity. Some stretches include making circular motions with each ankle clockwise and counter-clockwise or standing up in the aisle and bending at the waist to reach for your toes to stretch hamstrings or standing on one leg bending the opposite knee to bring the heel to your buttock and holding for 15 seconds while grabbing onto a seat for balance support.
5. Blood Clots. A 2003 study in New Zealand indicated people who travel for four or more hours have three times the risk of developing blood clots in their limbs than those who do not travel. Laurence says risks of blood clots increases with longer durations and frequencies of flights, obesity, genetic predispositions for blood clots and individuals taking birth control pills or hormone therapies. He recommends standing and taking a walk down the airplane aisle every 30 to 45 minutes, especially on long flights.
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