How to Work Out on a Plane

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You know movement matters. Sitting all day ups your risk of obesity; and people wear Fitbits for a reason: The more you move, the healthier you are. To that extent, if you’re reading this, you probably already sweat most days of the week, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and hit your 10,000 steps. But step onto a plane, and rules go out the window. You eat airplane food. You cram in next to two people you don’t know. You stay still for hours on end.

The problem with that: Movement isn’t just a huge part of a healthy lifestyle, it’s a necessary safety measure, too: “When we remain seated in one position for periods of time, our blood flow is impeded,” says Tom Holland M.S., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist who has traveled the world competing in races. Our leg muscles don’t contract, decreasing circulation, which can lead to deep vein thrombosis (DVT)—when a blood clot forms, can break loose, and clot somewhere more dangerous, like the lungs, he adds.

Tray tables and seatmates are just the beginning of the obstacles, too. Some research suggests because of all the travel involved with sports, athletes are at a higher risk of DVT. (Dehydration, which can come about because of both fitness and flying, can also increase your chances of DVT.) The American College of Chest Physicians suggests that sitting in a window or middle seat can up your risk of DVT. (Keeping the blood flowing by walking around can lower your risk of clots, but having to ask folks to let you out can keep you in your seat, researchers suggest.) That’s why David Oliver, Olympic bronze medalist and current defending world champion in the 110-meter men’s hurdles always picks an aisle seat: “Being able to get up and down freely is pivotal.” As a professional track and field athlete, he spends much of his time traveling—with May spent totally on the road.

What else matters when it comes to moving around in the air? When the seatbelt sign is turned off, take these tips and exercises to the aisles or stretch it out in your seat.

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Twist It Out

Best for: In your seat

“Many people experience lower back discomfort during their daily lives; pain that can increase exponentially during long flights,” says Holland.
How it works: Sit up tall in seat, place both hands on outside of left thigh and rotate upper body and shoulders left, feeling a gentle stretch in lower back. Hold this for 10 to 15 seconds while remembering to breathe normally. Repeat on the other side. Do three stretches per side every 15 minutes or so.

Walk It Out 

Best for: In the aisles

“Keeping our blood circulating is extremely important to our overall health and well-being,” says Holland. He suggests walking briskly up and down the aisle several times every 20 to 30 minutes to increase blood flow to your muscles. Oliver tries to get up once an hour, doing two up and down aisle walks and a light stretching routine. “I don’t ‘exercise’ on the plane—I just like to stay really hydrated and moving,” says Oliver. “But when I land and get to the hotel, I always get a workout in there.”

Rest Your Brain

Best for: In your seat

“Fitness is more than just the physical side of things,” says Oliver. “Being mentally fit is often overlooked. I know that I am traveling and changing between 6 to 12 time zones, so I try to properly rest and stay hydrated, to try and get myself as close to on schedule with the time zone I am going to. Earplugs and a face mask are key ingredients to that,” he says. He’s onto something, too. Research shows that well-rested athletes perform better and that skimping on sleep can even up your risk of injury.


Best for: If you have lots of room

“Find some extra space, usually toward the back of the plane, and do 20 to 25 squats,” suggests Holland. You may feel silly, but it’ll be worth it. “This exercise will work all the muscles of the lower legs and the movement will help combat the time spent seated,” he adds. 

Touch Your Toes

Best for: In the aisles

“Standing, I like to do toe touches to open up the posterior chain,” says Oliver. These are the muscles in the low back, glutes, hamstrings, and even the calves. “I also find that it keeps blood from pooling in the ankle region.” Not only will you keep blood moving in your legs, but you’ll stretch out your shoulders and back too—getting more bang for your buck. Research also suggests that the better able you are to touch your toes, the more flexible your arteries are—a sign of cardiovascular health.

Raise Your Heels

Best for: In your seat

“These movements are extremely important because failure of the calf muscles to contract for extended periods of time is one of the major causes of DVT,” says Holland. How it works: While seated with feet on the floor, lift up heels and squeeze calf muscles, then lower heels back down. Do 20 to 25 repetitions every 15 minutes or so. 

Find Room for Plyometric Hops

Best for: If you have lots of room

Find yourself on a double decker with plenty of space for activities? Find a little extra space and then perform 20 to 25 small jumps in place, suggests Holland. “This is an extremely effective exercise to both increase blood flow to the entire body while working major muscle groups as well.” Bonus: If you have extra space, add in your upper body as well, reaching up to the ceiling with both hands with each small jump. Just ignore the strange looks.

Stretch Your Glutes

Best for: In your seat

“The muscles we sit on, our glutes, can become very tight when seated for long periods of time,” says Holland. “Also, our piriformis muscles, found deep in our glutes, can become especially tight and lead to major discomfort, including presenting as sciatica, all due to long periods in a seated position.” How it works: Lift left leg off the ground while seated and place left ankle across right knee. Place both hands on left knee and gently press knee down towards the floor. You should feel a gentle stretch in left glute. Do both legs, holding each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds every 15 minutes or so.

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