While summer travel often means plenty of fun and excitement, being stuck in 22B for hours on end can also trigger a slew of aches and pains (from a tight neck to a dead butt). According to Leah Dugas, a Tier X coach at Equinox Beverly Hills, the muscular woes of air travel all tend to boil down to one thing: a lack of movement. But fortunately, there are a few simple stretches you can do at 36,000 feet to help ease and prevent discomfort, so you can enjoy every second of your vacay to the fullest.
If you have a stiff neck or upper back
Slouch with your back rounded forward from take off to touchdown, and you’re going to feel it later, says Dugas. If you don’t use the full range of motion in your joints, you will lose it. “This even happens temporarily when sitting for long periods of time, and results in stiffness,” says Dugas.
To maintain your full range of motion, every 30 to 60 minutes, look over each shoulder three to five times; look up and down three to five times; and tilt your head left to right three to five times. Roll your head in circles three to five times in each direction as well.
For your upper back, from a seated position, side-bend at your rib cage and reach your hands overhead—as long as your seat mates aren’t too close. If they are, cross your arms and grab onto opposite shoulders. This keeps the thoracic spine mobile, and its attaching muscles active, Dugas explains.
If you have an achy lower back
Your low back isn’t meant to be loaded in a seated position for several hours running. “Sitting is not a position found in nature. We’re meant to squat,” Dugas says.
“Sitting up tall without the back support from a chair, or sitting on an exercise ball can keep the core more active while sitting,” she adds. Crammed plane seats, on the other hand, can render the core inactivate. Over time, putting your spine and the surrounding muscles under stress without core support can result in lower back pain.
Sidestep the problem by setting alarms on your phone at least every hour to get up and walk around. The key to preventing the pain is simply not loading your back for so long, Dugas says. Walking around unloads your spin, reactivating your trunk stabilizers. “When you sit down you’ll have increased core activation from moving,” she notes. But this activation wanes over time—hence the need to repeat every hour!
If you have tight hips
A seated position leaves your hip flexors locked in a flexed, shortened position, increasing muscle tension, Dugas explains.
Standing up in the aisle, clasping your hands together, and grabbing onto one knee while pulling it tight to your chest, keeping the bottom leg extended straight can help. Hold the position for three seconds or so, and alternate legs. “This moves the hips through full flexion and extension to maintain range of motion,” Dugas explains.
If you have a sore booty
Coined ‘dead butt syndrome,’ an achy rear is actually a dysfunction of the gluteus medius muscle, says Dugas. Sitting on your behind for too long can render the glutes inactive, causing pain as other muscles compensate for the loss. “The body is giving you a sign that it’s unhappy or irritated by what you’ve been doing (in this case, sitting) and it wants you to change something,” explains Dugas.
Get your glutes to fire by standing in the aisle on one leg and hinging forward to reach your fingertips toward your standing knee or ankle, keeping your spine straight, suggests Dugas. (Your non-standing leg should extend behind you. Imagine you are doing a single-leg deadlift without weight.) Alternate legs.
Similarly to how you activate your core by simply walking, your glutes will be more active when you sit after this move. But you know the deal: repetition is key!
To keep blood from pooling in your legs
You’ve likely heard of the slightly increased risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)—a blood clot that develops usually in the legs and can travel up the body to areas like the lungs—while flying. While the risk is low, making a few strides up and down the aisle every 60 minutes or so can slash it even more. Walking is one of the best ways to encourage blood flow and circulations all over the body, says Dugas.
Pinned in the window seat next to a sleeper, and can’t get up as often as you’d like? Pack a mini trigger point ball in your carry-on (like this one or this one) to roll out your feet, helping promote blood and lymph circulation.