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It doesn’t matter if you’re in a Singapore Suite or the world’s worst economy seat: if you’re going to be on a plane for more than a few hours, you may want to consider some exercise. And while you may not be able to bring your barbell for deadlifts or treadmill for a run onto the plane (picture that image for a minute and crack a smile), there are plenty of simple exercises that you can do in any class, on any plane, to stay loose and sane.


The Case for In-Flight Exercise

If you’re not the type that feels the natural urge to get some light activity in every hour of the day, science certainly has something to say in favor of breaking up a long flight with exercises.

To begin with, when an airline cabin is pressurized, it is the equivalent of being at 8,000 feet altitude, meaning that breathing is more labored. Add to that a reduced amount of available oxygen and humidity, and your body is already working hard to get the required amount of oxygen into your bloodstream.

Secondly, sitting for extended periods of time in cramped quarters (read: economy class seating) puts people at risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition whereby a blood clot forms in a deep vein within your body, usually in the lower leg, thigh or pelvis. If left untreated, DVT can be life-threatening.


Simple Exercises for Your Next Flight

There are two main things to consider when deciding on which exercises to do on your next flight:

  1. How feasible is it, considering the confines of your seat and the requisite standards of courtesy toward your seat neighbors?
  2. How likely is it to raise the eyebrows of nearby passengers and/or get you tackled by an air marshal?

With those two parameters in mind, here are our suggestions for some exercises that will keep your body active, your blood flowing and your fellow passengers focused on their in-flight media choices.

In Your Seat

In reality, the vast majority of your time will be spent in your seat, however much you’d prefer to wander the aisles. Just come to terms with it. And don’t you dare defy the Fasten Seatbelts sign! These exercises are easy and low-profile, so they won’t bug your neighbors (though, it’s probably still a good idea to let them know that you’re going to be doing some exercises, so they don’t think you’re a crazy person).

  • Sit Up straight and Engage Your Core – Sometimes the most helpful exercises are the simplest ones. (Though, that doesn’t mean they’re the easiest.) The best thing you can do on an airplane is to consciously sit up straight, engaging your core muscles. Straightening your spine and holding your shoulders slightly back opens up your abdomen, giving your organs more space and making it easier for you to take big, deep breaths.
    • What does it mean to Engage Your Core? While sitting as tall in your seat as you possibly can, take a big breath inward. Try to not only fill your lunges, but let your diaphragm fill as well. You’ll know this is happening when your belly pushes against your seat belt and your lower back pushes into the seat. Exhale slowly out your mouth and squeeze your abdominals tightly. Try to get all of your air out. Pause for a second and repeat. You will be breathing your way to a better core.
  • Calf Raises – Simply contracting your calf muscles can help to lower the risk of developing DVT. The calves have been called a “second heart” because of the role they play in helping pump oxygen-poor blood back toward the heart. Start with both of your feet flat on the ground, then lift your heels with your toe tips on the ground. Hold and repeat. (Note: This exercise is another great one when you’re waiting in life for the restroom.) Feeling a little advanced? Use your carry on bag or laptop as weighted resistance. Simply place on top of your knees. You can also use your hands to push down on your knees. The added resistance will make this more challenging and pressing down gets the triceps in your arms working as well.
  • Knee Bends – Bending forward sightly, grab one knee at a time and pull it toward your chest until you feel a comfortable pressure in your upper thigh. Hold for 15-20 seconds, then switch knees, repeating as necessary.
  • Rotate – One of the main reasons we feel stiff is from a lack of rotation. Sit tall on the edge of your seat and place your right hand on your left knee. Gently pull your knee with your right hand, which will rotate your upper body further to the left. Let your shoulders follow your eyes and head. Hold for 15-20 seconds and repeat on the other side. You can also complete this move while standing.
  • Shoulder Lifts and Rolls – Lift your shoulders to your ears, hold, then release. Alternate with shoulder rolls, lifting your shoulders to your ears, then rotating them back and forward again.
  • Work Your Joints – Roll your ankles and wrists; bend your elbows and knees. Generally move whatever body parts you are easily able to while seated (and without disrupting your neighbors).

While Standing

Ahh, the journey – however brief – down the aisle to the lavatory! So refreshing! So rejuvenating! But while you’re in line, why not capitalize on your upright time by throwing in a few of these standing exercises?

  • Chest Stretch – Standing up straight, clasp your hands behind your lower back and push your arms back, away from your body, so your shoulder blades press together and your chest opens into a deep stretch.
  • Lunges – Keeping your spine straight, step forward with one leg, lowering your body until your front knee is bent at 90 degrees. Return to your original position, then repeat with the other leg. (This one could border on disruptive, so make sure you know what is in front of you and behind you.)
  • Upper Body Twist – Standing up straight, with your feet planted, place your hands behind your head and interlock your fingers, Slowly rotate towards one side while bracing your core. Repeat side to side.
  • Hanging Stretch – From a standing position, bend at the waist and let your upper half hang comfortably, hands reaching for your toes. This will give your hamstrings and lower back and good stretch. It’s important to exhale as you lower to relax your lower back. (This is another one that would good to let anybody standing near you know about, so they don’t think you’re in need of an airsickness bag.)


Follow these tips and you’ll get off your next flight feeling loose and limber and ready for adventure!

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