Feeling cooped up? Sheltering at home got you feeling restless? Need to travel for business or the holidays? Whether for business or pleasure, traveling can be the very medicine that your mind, body, and spirit need. On the other hand, branching out of your native environment and routine can also open the door to illness. Now in the age of pandemics, it’s more important than ever to know how to stay healthy while traveling.
Visiting new places and experiencing the wonders of the world is exciting and often filled with wonder and joy. Exposure to different people, places, and ways of living can lead to new perspectives and even spiritual awakenings. All of these experiences are healthy and make us better human beings. But travel has even more specific health benefits, especially if your goal iskeeping your brain healthy and young:
While there are plenty of reasons to pack a bag and see the world, there are also risks. Spending long hours in airports and transit stations, walking around new cities, and eating unfamiliar foods can take their toll on one’s mental and physical health. It’s imperative, then, to understand the common risks associated with travel so you can know the pitfalls to avoid:
Colds may be 113 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during everyday life on the ground. Why? A study published in theJournal of Environmental Health Research suggests it’s due to the extremely low cabin humidity caused by humidity shifts at high elevations. This causes mucus in our nose and throat to dry up, crippling our natural defense system against germs(5).
Travel can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms, affecting the production of hormones that regulate your sleep and wake cycles. On long flights, it’s easy to lose several hours of sleep. Add to that the rapid change in time zones that produces a temporary sleep disorder called jet lag, and you have a recipe for a weakened immune system. Combatting jet lag and sleep deprivation with caffeine compounds the problem, so hold off on the coffee and instead prioritize fitting sleep into your schedule once you’ve landed.
Tap water is teeming with unique strains of local bacteria foreign to a traveler’s native gut biome. Drinking the local water and eating food rinsed or cooked in tap water makes you vulnerable to unpleasant stomach troubles. Swimming in polluted water is an even greater risk. Remember, since some contaminants are invisible to the naked eye, you can’t always tell just by looking at the water. It is a good protocol when traveling to drink bottled water to avoid potential stomach upsets.
You’re excited for the week of vacation you’ve been planning for months and spend the night before the trip stuffing your backpack full of the essentials. Finally, at two in the morning, you stop to get some shut-eye before your early morning flight. Struggling to get out the door to get to the airport, you skip breakfast but manage to grab a large coffee.
Frantic that you might miss your flight, you’re rushing to make it through security to your departure gate. Taking your seat on the plane is a relief. You put a few items in the seatback pocket and finally have a moment to sit back and relax.
Eventually, the stewardess comes by and you decide to order a can of ginger ale and complimentary pretzels. An hour or two later, you try to get some sleep but realize it’ll never happen on the vertical plane seat. So you drink another cup of coffee and watch another movie.
After eight hours of airplane food and little to no sleep, you finally arrive at your destination—exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated. This physical state undoubtedly cripples your immune system, which is no way to start out an adventure. Instead, consider a proactive approach to protecting your well-being before your plane even takes off the ground.
Here’s how a smart traveler sets themselves up for success ahead of their trip:
1. Give your immune system a head start. A week before departure, start preparing your immune system by eating lots of vegetables and foods rich in antioxidants.
2. Pack your bags a week early. You don’t want to be stressed heading to the airport. Knowing you have everything you need well before your departure is a surefire way to stay ahead of the game and prevent unneeded sleep deprivation. Pack it carefully with dual-use clothing and functional items.
3. Carry water and snacks. In your carry-on, make sure to pack a water bottle with its own purification system as well as hydration tablets. If you can, bring along a box of high-quality meal replacement bars.
4. Start your departure day the right way.Drink some tea and eat a nourishing meal before heading to the airport. You don’t want to deprive yourself of the nutrition you need to stay healthy. Give yourself plenty of extra time getting to the airport in case of traffic, so there’s no need to rush.
5. Hydrate on the plane. Before boarding, fill your water bottle and drop a hydration tablet inside so you can stay hydrated throughout the flight. This will also help prevent those pesky cravings for sugary drinks on the plane.
6. Set a strategy for a long flight.Choosing a window seat is a win-win: you can lean against the window, and no one will disturb you for a bathroom break. Pack a smaller bag inside your carry-on that contains your snacks, reading materials, noise-canceling headphones, and your Elderberry gummies for that extra immunity boost, and place it under the seat. After you’ve enjoyed a movie, put on those noise-canceling headphones and listen to soothing music or guided meditation to lull you to sleep. You’ll be grateful you did once you’ve landed.
7. Disinfect your seat. Use a disinfectant wipe to clean the armrests and the seatback in front of you, and apply somehand-sanitizer for good measure. Now you can relax.
8. Save your shoulders. Don’t carry heavy luggage on your back through the airport. If available, get a rolling cart or luggage set that attaches your carry-on to the larger, rolling piece of luggage.
With these strategies in your back pocket, you’ll arrive at your destination well-rested, hydrated, and nourished. Most importantly, you’ll be ready to set out on your first adventure from the moment you land without worrying about the jet-lag.
In addition to tips for your departure, there are some tips you’ll want to keep in mind on the trip itself:
1. Use disinfectant on door handles, light switches, and the television remote once you arrive.One study shows that these are the germiest places in a hotel room(9). Disinfect them. It only takes a minute to wipe them down as soon as you check in to the room. If you’re unable to bring disinfectant wipes in your luggage, trymaking your own disinfectant from vinegar and lemon.
2. Consider your walking limits.While extra walking during a vacation is considered a health benefit, a significant increase in walking can lead to muscle soreness for those who aren’t used to walking for miles at a time. Too much walking right off the bat can leave you sore and decommissioned, which nobody wants on vacation.
3. Maintain an exercise routine.Daily exercise is important for good health, and just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t exercise. Just 15 minutes of moderate-intensity bodyweight exercises can be as effective as a 60-minute workout at a gym. Running in place, push-ups, jumping jacks, and mountain climbers only require a little bit of space and can be done in your hotel room.
4. Alternate between local food and your regular diet.A radical change in your diet can quickly upset the gut biome. While sampling local food is one of the best parts of traveling, make sure to alternate with food that you know your gut can handle.
5. Eat at places where a lot of people are eating, especially locals.If many people, especially locals, are eating at a place, that’s a good sign the food is tasty and fresh. If it weren’t, the local people probably wouldn’t eat there. In addition, high turnaround time in a busy restaurant means the food is prepared continually and not sitting on shelves.
While traveling is full of things to celebrate, it's essential to take proactive steps to keep yourself healthy while on your trip. A little bit of planning and strategy can keep you feeling refreshed and strong both before, during, and after your vacation or business trip.
Before your trip, make sure to pack ahead, nourish your body with micronutrients, and bring along healthful snacks to keep you satiated on the plane. Once you arrive at your destination, try to maintain a moderate exercise routine, stick to filtered water, and eat where the locals do. With these tips in mind, you’ll be equipped to make the most out of your travels.
Siphiwe Baleka - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice