Summer is finally here! For many of us summer means it’s time for vacation with friends and family. Having recently returned from my honeymoon, I know that the down side of vacations can be the travel there and back. Whether you’re driving or flying to your destination, you’ll likely be spending many hours sitting.
As a physical therapist, I’m aware of the potential risks of sitting in the same position for several hours but, to be honest, I never thought it applied to me because I’m healthy, active, and young. That was until Serena Williams had a Pulmonary Embolism in 2011 after traveling on an airplane. Our veins are responsible for sending blood back to our heart and lungs and they’re designed with flaps to help prevent the backflow of blood. Unfortunately, as we get older these valves become less effective. So what sends blood back to the heart? Gravity can help but with your legs down in sitting gravity is actually working against the blood flood in your legs. Mainly it’s our leg muscles that help send blood back to the heart. Every time we contract our muscles we put pressure on the venous system to help keep blood flowing. Why should we care about this? When blood becomes stagnant it can start to form clots, the same way it does when you cut yourself. This clot can stay in the legs, called a DVT (deep vein thrombosis), or travel to other parts of the body, such as the lungs where it’s called a PE (pulmonary embolism). A PE is no small issue! It can be life threatening if not treated quickly!
So there went my theory that I was safe because who is more physically fit and active then Serena Williams?! I realized that the advice I have been giving my patients for years about traveling and blood clots was also for me. I needed to practice what I preached. And what better opportunity than a 10 hour overseas flight to France? These few exercises are easy to do whether driving or flying and, who knows, they might save your life!
1. Toe crunches: This is easier to do with your shoes off but can be done with them on if needed. Curl your toes in towards you, lift the toes and spread them wide, return toes to the floor. Imagine you’re picking up a marble with your toes and then dropping it back to the floor. 10 times.
2. Ankle pumps: Lift your toes up off the floor towards your shins and then point your feet by lifting your heels off the floor. Alternate lifting your heels and toes 10 times.
3. Cancan kicks: In the car slide your seat back if you can and on a plane aim your legs towards the aisle. Lift your foot up towards the ceiling, straighten your knee, and squeeze your quadriceps muscle, hold 3 seconds. Then bend your knee and slide your heel towards your gluts squeezing your hamstring, hold 3 seconds. 10 times both legs.
4. Ball squeezes: Ok, you probably don’t travel with an exercise ball, but the good news is you can replace it with almost anything. Grab a small airplane pillow, blanket, sweater, or anything soft and place it between your knees. Squeeze your knees together and hold for 3 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
5. Walk: No explanation needed here! Pull over at a rest stop or get out of your seat and walk the aisles on the plane. If you’re driving and at a rest stop, feel free to add in your favorite stretches! If you’re on a plane this might be a little harder to do and you might get some interesting looks. At one point on my 10 hour return flight I decided the stares were worth it and did some quad stretches and lunges in the aisle. I felt much better afterwards.
All of these exercises are easy to do and can be done in a few minutes. I hope these simple tips make your summer travels a little more comfortable. Most of all, I hope everyone has safe travels this summer and a wonderful, relaxing, fun vacation!