What Holiday Travel Really Does to Your Body
Crowded airports, overpacked luggage, cramped airplane seats — and maybe even a stomach-tightening, nail-biting anxiety brought on by the annual visit to your in-laws — are all very real perils of holiday travel. Add on the weeks of pre-holiday office treats and big holiday meals, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
To help combat all the tolls that holiday travel takes on your body, we talked to medical experts to guide us through the medical menaces of holiday travel and to share advice on how to overcome these potential obstacles.
Ever noticed how your skin looks noticeably worse the moment you step off the airplane? Your post-flight complexion problems aren’t unique.
“The recycled air in an airplane with low humidity can dry out your skin in a very short time,” said dermatologist Zena Gabriel. Air on trains can also be recycled, or just plain freezing, so prepare for skin dehydration before boarding that plane or train.
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Dr. Gabriel recommends applying extra moisturizer the morning you’re traveling and packing a small spray bottle of thermal water to spritz on your face during the trip. Before you arrive, apply a few drops of facial oil before re-applying any makeup to freshen up your look. And of course, drink plenty of water (and skip the soda and alcohol).
The healthiest airport snack is not a cinnamon sugar pretzel.
Beyond all the indulgent holiday foods, airports may encourage further indulgence. Feel like you’re craving a soothing bite of soft pretzel more than usual as you claim your seat near the USB outlets at gate B25? That’s your body’s way of self-soothing.
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“When the body enters an extremely stressful state, it craves sugar,” said nutritionist Haylie Pomroy, author of “Metabolism Revolution.” “When you experience a sustained period of stress, your body never gets back to a restful state. You keep pumping out those stress hormones, which keep you craving sugar. They also tell the body to hold on to stored fat, rather than burning it for fuel.”
“The holiday travel can be a time of stress so it’s more important than ever to nourish the body.”
Prepare for these cravings by packing natural sugar sources, like apples, oranges or other sweet fruits. “This will help your body get through the immediate crisis and give it the sugar it craves,” Pomroy said. She also recommends carrying a “crash stash” in your carry-on — and that’s sugar crash, to be clear. “This way, no matter where you are, if you get hungry or it's been three to four hours since you last ate and you need healthy food fast, you’ll be ready,” Pomroy says. She packs apples, nitrate-free jerky, herbal tea, instant steel cut oats, raw nuts, nut butter, English toffee stevia and cacao nibs.
Exposure to Germs
Especially during winter travel, it can feel like every other human nearby is a host to some disease you really don’t want.
“When you’re traveling, especially by air, you’re exposed to multiple people’s germs from all over the world,” said gastroenterologist Roshini Rajapaksa. Better yet, during cold and flu season these “particularly infectious particles” that cause colds and flus can easily spread from person to person. Even if you’re not sitting next to a window seat sneezer, be careful touching pretty much everything in the airport — kiosks, TSA trays, seats at the gate, etc. “These can all have other people’s germs,” Dr. Rajapaksa said.
To prevent the spread of germs, carry antibacterial wipes — don’t forget your airplane tray table and headrest — and hand sanitizer to use when you can’t wash your hands. Most importantly, keep your fingers off your face.
“The way we get infected is by touching fingers to the mouth, eyes and nose,” Dr. Rajapaksa said.
That oversized carry-on you somehow smuggled into the overhead compartment killed your shoulder.
You may feel like Wonder Woman when you lift that duffel full of gifts into the overhead compartment solo, but you may feel the unreasonable weight of that bag on your body in the days to come. If you can’t use a rolling bag, Dr. Rajapaksa recommends centering the weight of the bags you’re carrying, so you’re not carrying everything on one side of your body. Always lift from the knees (don’t bend with your back!) and don’t dismiss the rental carts at the airport to help push your luggage around.
“Don’t over exert yourself,” Dr. Rajapaksa said. Overexertion can cause neck pain or back pain that may last the duration of your trip or even cause permanent damage.
If you do get those aches and pains, Dr. Rajapaksa recommends applying heat to the area, taking warm baths and hot showers, taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and not ignoring pain if it doesn’t go away. Most importantly: Don’t preemptively push yourself to carry things. This is the holiday season, not a bodybuilding competition.
It may also seem obvious, but if you can’t fit those heels or platform shoes in your bag, don’t wear them through the airport. Same goes for sandals which may seem comfy. Dr. Rajapaksa suggests wearing sneakers and socks for airports — you need shoes with solid comfort, arch support and never want to be barefoot to avoid contact with germs or potential sharp objects on airport floors.
There’s literally no point of spending half a day (and likely half your paycheck) flying home for the holiday if you’re just going to be whining about how tired and achy you are for the whole visit. “Sitting for a long period of time, during a car ride or on a plane can increase risk of blood clots in the legs,” Dr. Rajapaksa says. She encourages anyone sitting for long periods of time to get up every two hours and walk around for 10-15 minutes, even if that’s just up and down the aisle of the airplane. Sitting for excessive periods can also cause bowel issues and constipation, further worsened by your circadian rhythm or body clock being off thanks to lack of sleep and/or a time change. Dr. Rajapaksa encourages including extra fiber in your diet (via fiber bars or snacks like raisins, apples or carrot sticks), drinking as much water as you can handle and limiting alcohol consumption on the plane.
Between dodging political debates and answering questions about future grandchildren, you feel like you’re losing your mind
“Holidays, even if you’re not traveling, can be very stressful,” Dr. Rajapaksa said. Part of avoiding all of the aforementioned ailments is reducing stress by giving yourself enough sleep and mental preparation leading up to holiday travel: “Sleep needs to be a priority.”
And while you are away, try and maintain a regular exercise routine, even if your prefered boutique fitness studio isn’t within a reasonable distance.
“Exercise is one of the best stress reducers,” Dr. Rajapaksa said. “Some studies compare it to [taking] antidepressants.” She recommends bringing resistance bands with you, going for walks and taking a few minutes out of each day to meditate. Try practicing slow deep breathing or downloading an app like Bright Mind for on-the-go meditation.
“Do it wherever you are to recenter yourself and get a different perspective,” Dr. Rajapaksa said.