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Turn airport waiting time into a fitness opportunity

By Lisa Ziegel

According to Dr. Richard Larson, an Engineering Systems Division professor who studies "queuing psychology" at MIT, we spend an average of at least two to three years of our lives waiting for things. Whether waiting in a room for a doctor's appointment or sitting in traffic waiting to move in a car, the feeling of wasting your time can be very frustrating. One of the most mind-numbing sources of boredom and aggravation comes from waiting in airports due to flight delays. Sure, you can read, surf the web on your tablet computer, play with your Smartphone, or try to catch a quick nap. But what if you could use that time productively to do something that so many people claim they have no time to do? In addition, Dr. Larson's research has suggested that when people are waiting along with some form of distraction, their perception of the discomfort is somewhat lessened. Dr. Christopher Berger, an exercise physiologist and member of the American College of Sports Medicine's "Exercise is Medicine" task force, said that "Exercise is Medicine on the Fly" is using this tactic to encourage people to use the time they might normally fritter away to help alleviate the newly recognized dangers of prolonged sitting and the issue of "deep vein thrombosis" or "DVT" among at-risk flyers. This group is dedicated to making air travel healthier, and airport walking is just one of the initiatives they are promoting. Whether a frequent flyer or an occasional traveler, anyone can benefit from these tips that will add to your fitness repertoire and make fitting in activity even easier.

A Scottish study conducted in 2003 found that the more time that was spent sitting while engaging in entertainment devices (computers, gaming, Smartphone Apps, etc.) the higher the risk for cardiovascular disease. As little as two hours spent sitting caused a marked increase in this risk1. Take the average person with a sedentary lifestyle who sits in the airport waiting before a flight and then sits again on the plane for two hours or more, and the problem is evident. In addition, the threat of DVT or pulmonary embolism (PE) can come into play for some athletes who travel directly after competitive events. Despite their healthier lifestyles, the level of activity they perform in their sport coupled with insufficient hydration and recovery time afterward can pose the same risk as a sedentary person has.

In any case, our bodies normally have the ability to dispatch potential clots that may form through a negative feedback system. However, this system could be compromised in the case of an injury or a physiological obstruction to blood flow. Sitting, especially in a cramped space (such as an airplane seat), also impedes blood flow from the lower extremities to the heart. An athlete who has just performed a strenuous activity and who did not hydrate or recover well afterward is at increased risk with prolonged sitting due to the extra thickness of the blood. Other risk factors include congenital abnormalities and family history of DVT2.

Luckily, by exercising a few precautions and by incorporating light exercise before a long bout of traveling, the chance of incurring a DVT or PE becomes much less, and it will help you feel better before and after your trip. Knowing your risk factors and the signs and symptoms of each (lower extremity swelling, pain and/or discoloration, shortness of breath, coughing, etc.) and staying well-hydrated are things everyone can do.

Of course, physical activity is one of the best preventative measures, and the "Exercise is Medicine on the Fly" group has done a great deal of work to bring awareness to the activity that can be executed in airports, as well as enlisting the help of airport officials in making terminals more exercise-friendly. The group aims to engage all facets of airport operations, including the airlines themselves and various merchants and vendors on the premises in assisting with their efforts. Creating signage that points out areas with space for walking and opportunities for walking is one option, such as walking by foot instead of taking the moving walkways through corridors. The ACSM can provide instructional material (i.e., airport websites and in-flight videos, information inside in-flight magazines) and provide consultation to airport authorities in designing more activity-friendly spaces.

Most airlines will hold carry-on luggage, or you can check your luggage to allow you more freedom to walk around while you are waiting during a layover (although if you use proper form while pulling or pushing your luggage, you can use it for extra resistance), and you may find the walls adorned with inviting artwork to make your walk more pleasant. And of course, you can always take stairs whenever possible. Some airports have walking trails adjacent to them so that you can go outside and get some fresh air, weather permitting. Others are near fitness centers or hotels with in-house gyms, and the ACSM is encouraging these to offer special rates for travelers.

If you are stuck in one place and are not able to walk around the terminal, you can always keep moving by doing lunges in-place, squats, side-lunges, even push-ups with your hands on the seat of a fixed -terminal chair and your feet on the floor (as long as you are not disruptive). Stand as much as possible and move your legs. You can stretch your calves in-place along with your hamstrings and hip flexors to prepare them for the job of sitting on the plane. Shoulder rolls and side-neck stretches will help alleviate upper neck and back strain from sitting in those uncomfortable seat positions.

Of course, your movement will be limited once you are in flight but take any opportunity to get out of your seat and walk around when you can and use the time if you have to wait to use the lavatory to move. Doing lunges down the aisle on your way back to your seat may not be acceptable to the flight staff or other passengers but try to get a couple of subtle stretches in before you sit down. Shift around in your seat (or bring a micro-fiber filled "doughnut" pillow like I do so that you can move around on top of your seat more easily). As soon as you de-plane, get yourself moving and keep moving even if you have to wait for your luggage in the carousel.

If the Exercise is Medicine on the Fly taskforce is successful, travelers will be able to enjoy the benefits of activity no matter where they are flying, lower their risks of DVT and PE and be able to adhere to an active lifestyle that will benefit in the air or on the ground.