Pain-free flights: how to avoid aches and pains on long flights

29 June 2023
Pain-free flights: how to avoid aches and pains on long flights

A few weeks ago, on a relatively weird and winding path (7 flights, two in first class!) across the country to see various family members, I found myself in serious pain. The kind of pain that makes you count how many years you have left on this earth if you know what I mean. 

Thank goodness, after some long walks and stretchy workouts, the pain dissipated. Still, I was a little unnerved. After all, this isn’t the only flying trip I’ll have this year, and who likes pain?

Most people aren’t finding the act of flying all that fun these days. We all know the new adage: “Sitting is the new smoking.”

Sitting leads to stiff joints, tight muscles, and fluid stagnation, along with issues related to your organ systems like digestion, metabolism, blood flow, and hydration. Shifting positions, and even wiggling around a bit, can help but eventually, there’s just no comfortable position in which to sit. 

Even flyers with excess legroom often suffer from exhaustion and dehydration (maybe those free drinks aren’t such a good idea 😉).

This article is about all the ways you can prevent pain on long trips, so let’s get started.

Before booking

Limiting stiffness and pain when you travel starts before you book your flights. Here are some expert pre-booking rules to try and follow:

  1. Try to book a flight when there will be fewer people on board. You may have the opportunity to stretch out with an open middle seat, for example.
  2. Allow yourself the freedom of ample layovers. This gives you time to stretch, take long walks to get the blood flowing and your digestion working again, and sometimes get an airport workout.

On my return trip layover, I walked the entire length of the Phoenix airport three times, and it made all the difference!

Planning your trip

It’s not just the time sitting on your flights that can cause pain and stiffness – it’s also the car, train, and bus rides you’ll take on your trip. When you’re planning your trip, plan for physical activity.

One of the best things I’ve implemented after long-haul flights is booking a bike or walking tour. There are many websites you can use to find local guides that will take you on tours that have moderate physical activity. Some of my best travel memories were the locally guided bike tours in Vienna, Budapest, and Galway.

I’ve used both of these sites with great success:

There are others, of course, but these are the big players. Here’s a recent review of both travel services, if you’re curious.

Nearly all hotels have gyms, and some have high-end equipment, but not always. They can, however, give you local recommendations for where to get some activity if the gym workout is your preference. They can also tell you the closest yoga studio, or you can look it up online before you leave.

Alternatively (or additionally), you can map out a walking path using Google maps and download it to your phone, so you’re ready to lace up and move when you land.

Pro tip: An essential key to recovering well from long flights is to have some physical activity planned for the day of or the day after you land.

Before traveling

In the weeks and days leading up to a trip is also key – especially for long-haul flights. Following all the best health rules will help:

  1. Get some exercise every day leading up to your flight.
  2. Drink a lot of water every day. Here’s how to calculate how much water to drink every day (hint: it’s not 8 glasses anymore, it’s based on your weight!).
  3. Eat well – plenty of vegetables, moderate amounts of protein, and low sugar.
  4. Limit your alcohol intake in the days leading up to your flight.

Essentially, you want your body in the best health possible so it can withstand the rigors of a long flight.

Getting ready to fly

As you’re getting ready for your trip, follow these rules to be prepared for a pain-free trip:

  1. Pack light – the heavier your luggage, the more strain on your body to lift and/or drag it.
  2. Carry a refillable water bottle – fill it up after passing through security and sip often.
  3. Take a neck pillow – pullout headrests aren’t on all flights and don’t support your head.
  4. Toss some workout clothing and shoes into your suitcase.
  5. Pack some pain medication in your carry-on in case you need it during the flight.
  6. Set aside loose-fitting clothes for the flight, along with some compression socks.

Low-back pain is a common issue when flying too, but airlines aren’t generous with those tiny pillows. Pack a small pillow or have a travel towel or jacket you can roll up and place behind your low-back to ease your back.

While flying

The day has arrived! Here’s what to do in the airport and on the plane to prepare the body and avoid pain.

  1. Stretch in the waiting area before you fly, here are some good ones (but there are plenty of others):
    • Fold forward and allow your spine to stretch.
    • Gently tilt your head to one side to stretch your neck; repeat on the other side.
    • Reach one arm high and gently lean to the side; repeat on the other side.
  2. When allowed, recline your seat (at least a little bit) to ease the tension in your back.
  3. Drink a lot of water on the plane – it’s good for your joints and has the side benefit of making you get up to use the bathroom!
  4. At your seat, keep your legs moving even if there’s not a lot of space. With your feet flat on the floor:
    • Raise your heels and press your toes into the floor.
    • Raise one foot as high as the space available and circle each foot in both directions.
    • Bring one knee to your chest, squeeze, and hold (this will decrease the pressure on your hip joints).
    • Cross one leg over the knee of the other leg and fold over for a light back stretch.
  5. Set an alarm to get up every hour and walk the length of the plane. When you find an empty space like at the back of the plane, do some squats, side reaches, and twists. This will decompress the spine, regain joint movent, and ease pain.

Pro tip: Bookmark or download some easy airplane yoga videos or airplane stretch videos so you have them handy on the flight.

After you land

Your recovery begins as soon as the flight ends.

Immediately after exiting the plane, get some mobility movements in to remobilize the joints, pump fluids into the joints, and rejuvenate tight muscles. Simple bodyweight squats, light twists, overhead reaches, arm circles – it all helps.

Walking is a great way to start getting the body fluids pumping, so get moving! Even if you’re moving slow, you’re helping your body recover.

Pro tip: If you land late in the day and are too tired to do anything, take an epsom salt bath in your hotel. Epsom salts can help relax the muscles and reduce swelling, which thereby reduces pain.

Bonus tip: book a massage as soon as you land.

Final important warning

If you experience leg pain or cramps — especially in your calves — while flying do not ignore it! The most dangerous type of body ache during a flight can be the warning sign of a blood clot

Blood clots are more common for travelers with a family history of clots, those who have had recent surgery, those who smoke, or those with extra weight on their bodies.

A blood clot can move through the veins in your legs and into the lungs where it could cause a pulmonary embolism. If you experience these symptoms:

  • leg pain
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • palpitations

while flying, hit that flight attendant call button because immediate medical attention may be needed.

Related topics

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.