I didn’t experience my first really long plane flight until I was in my 50s. Until then, my longest trips had involved flying across the United States from coast to coast, or flying from the East Coast of the U.S. to Western Europe. Those are long flights, to be sure, but the planes were in the air for only 5-7 hours, which seems tame compared to my more recent journeys to and from Africa and Asia.
Returning from Zambia a week ago, I endured my longest flight yet: 17-hours on a Boeing 777-200LR that departed from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and arrived the next day in Washington D.C. The trip was broken into two 8-hour legs, separated by a one-hour re-fueling stop in Dublin, Ireland, during which passengers were confined to the plane. Prior to the flight, I feared for both my mental and physical health. If I managed to distract myself enough not to go insane, I might still be at risk for deep vein thrombosis from sitting for so long. Fearing the worst but determined to avoid psychosis and blood clots, I vowed to figure out how to exercise on the plane, even if it involved overcoming my natural self-consciousness and fear of public embarrassment.
Before describing the trip, I’d like to take a step back and review the basic premise of commercial air travel. The idea is, as I understand, to fit a profitable number of human beings into a confined space within a long, narrow metal tube with wings, seal that tube so that the people inside aren’t exposed to life-threatening cold and low air-pressure as they fly high above the surface of the earth, and convince them that there’s nothing to worry about – by serving them beverages and showing them movies. Unless you’re flying on Air Force One or a corporate jet, which, I have been told are sometimes equipped with treadmills, air travel offers limited options for exercise.
Faced with the fundamental difficulties described above, most people (until this last trip I probably would have included myself in this group) acquiesce in choosing the path of least resistance. They do their best to just “chill out” (as one travel-savvy friend advised), that is, check out of their bodies for the duration. Other than occasional visits to the lavatory, most people pass the time on a plane by sitting, watching movies, reading books, listening to music, or closing their eyes and imagining they are somewhere else. In this way, they hope that time passes quickly.
Those with a knack for sleeping on planes go one better and disappear under blankets, sparing their minds the hours of mind-numbing wakefulness in this artificial environment. Those who, like me, don’t sleep well in the upright positions offered in Economy Class, doze fitfully, drifting in and out of sleep. It sometimes seems that this kind of sleep makes the trip seem longer, not shorter.
One begins to look forward to drink service and meals that always seem to occur at odd and inappropriate times. Dinner? Breakfast? Snack? Origin time? Destination time? Never mind. One focuses on the tray in front of one, unwraps the plastic utensils, probes the food, eats some or all of it, thinks about saving the crackers for later and then decides that would be ridiculous, and finally waits for the tray to be cleared. This waiting, too, helps pass the time. Then, one tries to read, or watch, or doze again, or stares at the monitor, which shows an avatar of the plane in almost exactly the same position on the map that it was in ten minutes ago. One struggles to remember that one used to have a life, and one’s feet once ran upon solid ground.
My radical plan to survive my long-haul flight began with my seat selection. I purposefully chose a seat by the emergency exit because,
a) it offered extra legroom (at the cost of less room for hand-held luggage and accepting certain responsibilities in case of an actual emergency) and, b) it offered easy access to the aisle (at the cost of being located right next to the lavatories in the middle of the plane). Rather than wanting to check out, I wanted to get up often and move around as much as I could. My seat encouraged this and discouraged chilling out.
The second part of my plan involved drinking lots of water and peeing often. One might joke about the aerobic benefit of going to the bathroom, but the key here was to give myself a compelling reason to leave my seat multiple times throughout the journey. Once I was up, I would find other things to do, I reasoned.
The third part of my plan was the most radical: rather than check my restless running personality along with my bags, I would try to embrace and cater to it. I didn’t know exactly how this would work, but I knew that there were mental tricks for getting through tedious workouts and that these tricks that might help me build exercise “sessions” into the long hours of the flight.
We took off from Addis at about 11 p.m. local time, and after a few hours during which the crew had served and cleared one of those confusing meals, the cabin lights were turned off, and most of the passengers had settled in for a major nap. Seeing the opportunity, I got up and began to walk. In fact, not only did I begin to walk, I also switched my watch to chrono mode and pressed the start button. I didn’t have a specific goal, but I thought I should be able to keep moving for at least 15-20 minutes.
I began by walking up and down the length of Economy Class (~40 meters) a couple of times, being careful not to trip over other passengers’ feet or jostle their seats as I steadied myself during turbulence. On my third lap, I stopped outside the lavatory at the rear of the plane. This was one of the few places where there was room to move about relatively freely. If there was no one waiting for the lavatory, there was space for three or four people to stand comfortably, and when there was no one waiting, it was an excellent location for me to begin my first “station” of my circuit workout. I turned so that I was facing the front of the plane, placed my hands on the wall in front of me – the wall that separated my enclave from the last row of seats – and began doing knee lifts.
I did them slowly, alternating legs, counting up until I had completed 20 on each side. I then completed a similar set of standing butt kicks. Feeling my heart rate stir ever-so-slightly above resting state, I set off up the aisle again for another couple of laps. I don’t know whether it was the feeling that I was getting away with something, or the natural response to having that watch on my wrist, but I began to set goals for myself. I saw that I would easily be able to “exercise” for ten minutes, so I decided to go for twenty. If I had to wait while someone passed me in the aisle, or get out of the way for someone who needed to use the bathroom, I did so without impatience. Since my only goal was to stay up from my seat, these delays worked in my favor. And when I did arrive back at my – yes, it was “mine” now — exercise area, I racked my brain for simple drills, stretches, or movements that could be added to my routine. Wall push-ups, Single-leg stance, side leg lifts, trunk twisters… it was a fitness class fit for the nursing home, but I was into it. After 30 minutes had passed, I returned to my seat.
There’s no reason to give an hour-by-hour description of the rest of the flight. Suffice it to say that I repeated my circuit workout two more times before we landed in Washington D.C. I found that after every “workout,” my mind was much clearer and open to a change of pace when I sat down. Thus, the modest exercise seemed to make it easier to read, watch, or sleep.
During my second workout I tried running in place. My daughter tells me that she has done this (in the lavatory!) on some long-haul flights, but I never felt comfortable with it. For one thing, it bothered my calves. For another, it was more demanding, so that after a minute or so, I felt like stopping entirely. Also, I had an idiosyncratic reason for feeling weird about running in place: I kept thinking about my father (now deceased), who developed the habit late in his life of exercising at home by running in place in the living room wearing his pajamas and bathrobe. This image did not motivate me. Better, I decided, to continue with my low-intensity exercises that did not pretend to be running.
My final “workout” was my best one. At that point, I had been shut up in the cabin of the plane for fourteen hours. I had slept some, but not a lot, and I was tired, as you can imagine. But I set out as usual, starting my watch, and hoping to complete a final 30 minutes before strapping myself into my seat for the descent.
It was still dark in the cabin, but I knew the lights would be coming on soon, and with them, a lot more foot traffic. So I was prepared for more interruptions.
I did a couple of laps, and then started the exercises. I was growing tired of my previous routine, so I tried to think of new things to throw into the mix. At some point, perhaps after another few walking laps, I decided to do squats. This turned out to be a great decision, but not for the physical benefits. A few minutes after my second set of squats, as my watch showed me I had been up for almost 35 minutes, a couple came back to join me at the back of the plane, and the woman told me with a laugh that she should be doing squats, too. We began chatting, and it turned out she was a physical therapist, specializing in rehabilitation for patients with respiratory disorders. Small world! At this point, I didn’t need to work out any more, and instead chatted with the couple for more than half an hour about all sorts of things, including exercise, cardiovascular disease, the medical profession, and more. When I finally went back to my seat, my watch was still running and informed me I had been away from my seat for an hour and 14 minutes.
Ninety minutes later we touched down in D.C.
It appeared that I hadn’t lost my mind or my appetite for exercise. During our layover before he final flight to Boston, I got in a nice long walk (and ten-minute jog) between Terminals C and D.
Looking back on it now, I have the feeling that a lot of people would see my behavior on the plane as obsessive — a kind of neurosis. Maybe I would have thought that myself at some point. But the experience of using structured activity – exercise – to manage what might have been a really unpleasant trip has given me a different perspective.
For me, and I assume for many runners like me, exercise on a plane, however humble, is a far more effective coping strategy than checking out. Having little physical challenges and associated goals is far better than pretending that my body is happy to do nothing for such a long period of time. My mental health depends on it. The only surprise, really, is that so little space was needed to elicit those positive feelings that we normally associate with long runs in the woods or strenuous sessions on the track or in the gym.
Do you have a story of exercising on a plane? I’d love to hear it! In the mean time, I’m extremely happy to be doing my runs on the surface of the earth again. I’ve never been as happy to be plodding instead of flying.