Travel stiffness: stretching exercises

Do these stretches to avoid getting stiff from long hours of travel

Woman in a green field stretching beside a carWe reached home after 40 hours of air travel. And had to literally unfold my husband—Paul—who is just under 7ft tall from the airplane seat. As it is, sitting puts more pressure on the back and spine than standing. Sitting for long, which is required in long-distance travel, pressures the back even more. Sitting requires keeping the hip bent forward at the crease of the leg. This shortens and tightens the muscles in front of the hip. Tightness prevents normal hip function and is hard on the spine. Airlines sometimes encourage in-seat exercise and stretching through videos or printed messages. Often, they advise bending forward. That is the last thing you need. Try the following, instead:

  • Stretch your shoulders and back backward; and not forward. When you push your upper back against the seat, pull your chin in. Stretch your arms over your head and breathe.
  • Tilt your head and upper back against the seat. While pressing your feet on the floor, raise your hips in an attempt to straighten your hip at the ‘crease’ of the leg. Keep your neck straight; don’t bend it forward. You will feel that your thigh and hip muscles are working to do this.
  • Turn in your seat to each side and brace your elbow against the back of your seat. This stretches the pectoral muscles.
  • Straighten your knees and pull your toes back using your shin muscles to. Feel the back of your legs stretch.
  • Press both your feet against each other. Then, cross your ankles and pull both feet outwards. Repeat by crossing your ankles the other way around. Try it again with both legs out in front, as in the stretch above. This increases circulation in the leg.
  • Get out of your seat often.
  • Keep one foot far in front of you and the other in the back, like in a lunge position. Tip your hip under you, stretching the front of your hip. As soon as you tilt your hip, you will feel the difference. Hold the hip in that position, touching both knees almost to the floor, then up. Do many, then switch legs and do more.
  • Rest your head, heels, hip, and upper back against the wall. Bring both arms over your head, with your hands touching the wall. Lean your body far to one side then the other. Continue touching the wall with both hands. You can do these stretches while waiting for your turn at the rest room.
  • Move a step away from the wall. Now touch the wall with your hands stretching them over your head and back to touch the wall such that your fingers are pointing downward. Straighten elbows as much as comfortable. Stretch from your upper back, not lower back.

Bag to back

Man carrying bag om shouldersTravelling involves carrying heavy luggage. Leaning your neck forward or jutting your chin out or upward when carrying packs or handbags is a common source of ‘hanger-shaped’ pain across the shoulders. This pain is also common when sitting at the desk, and is usually caused by the same forward head positioning.

When you hang your head forward, the weight of your head is on the muscles of the neck and upper back, which makes them hurt. It also tightens the front chest and shoulder muscles. The position also interferes with proper motion of the shoulder, and can even lead to injury.

You can easily stop the bad positioning and the pain. Bring the neck, head, and chin inward until upright—without strain or without increasing the inward curve of the lower back. You should have relaxed, straight body positioning.

Don’t yank or force. Forcing yourself into straight position when you are too tight causes as much pain as bad positioning. To make standing straight easier, do the following stretch.

  • Stand facing a wall. Bend one of your elbows and touch the wall such that the inside surface of that arm is against the wall.
  • Turn your entire body and feet away from the wall leaving your arm in the same position. The wall should support your bent arm behind you. You will feel a nice stretch in the front of your chest if you are doing this right.
  • Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. Breathe or even smile.
  • Hold this position a few seconds. Breathe in and change arms. Breathe out as you stretch the other side for a few seconds.
  • Drop both arms to your sides. Then stand with your back against the wall. If you did this stretch right, it will feel natural to stand straight with the back of your head touching the wall.

When you walk away, make it a point to not slouch again. Hold the easy new healthy positioning for everything you do.

Remember though, that the stretch [or any stretch] is not what fixes the problem. It only enables you to stand in a way that no longer strains and injures.

Jolie Bookspan, M.Ed, PhD, FAWM. She is a sports medicine scientist known around the world for her innovative research to make medicine, fitness, and injury rehabilitation healthier. The Harvard school of medicine has named her “The St. Jude of the Joints”. She is an avid traveller, scuba instructor, martial arts experts and authored of many medical textbook chapters.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here