How Exercise Can Help Alleviate Jet Lag Symptoms

Woman resting on a plane

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If you've ever crossed several time zones during a long flight, you will most likely have experienced symptoms of jet lag. No matter how seasoned a traveler you are, jet lag is a common problem that most everyone deals with, some better than others.

At its heart, jet lag—also known as desynchronosis—is a mismatch between your internal and external clocks. Your internal clock, better referred to as your circadian rhythms, is a biological cycle regulated by things like sunlight, temperature, personal habits, and the cyclical release of hormones that modulate your sleep-wake patterns.

When external stimuli are not aligned with your internal clock, symptoms of jet lag can occur, including fatigue, insomnia, daytime sleepiness, headaches, indigestion, irritability, and a lack of concentration. The more time zones you cross, the worse your symptoms may be.

Traveling east is more difficult because it extends the daylight hours upon arrival, making it harder to stay awake until dark or asleep until sunrise. When flying west, you lose daylight hours, so can adjust more readily to the sleep patterns.

Fortunately, there are a number of remedies that can help. Chief among them is exercise. By compelling your body into physical activity, you can overcome fatigue, insomnia, and other jet lag symptoms better than you would by suffering through it.

How Exercise Improves Jet Lag

While exercise has little direct impact on your internal clock, it can increase the length and quality of your sleep during the adjustment period. This is because, under normal circumstances, circadian rhythms peak earlier in the day when we are the most active.

By increasing your heart rate and respiration through exercise, your body will respond in much the same way, peaking at times when it might otherwise be winding down. This can have an effect on how long or short your jet lag symptoms will last.

In 1996, a study from Japan observed flight attendants traveling from Tokyo to Los Angeles (an eight-hour time difference) and concluded that outdoor exercise cut jet lag recovery time from four days to three.

Exercise Tips

There is little evidence to support which types of exercise are "better" for jet lag than others. Most experts would advise you to embark on light to moderate exercises, such as yoga, jogging, or light resistance band training, rather than jumping into a high-intensity workout.

After all, long flights tend to leave you dehydrated, and the last thing you'll want to do is sweat out whatever water and electrolyte reserves you have left.

Exercising outdoors is especially useful as your body will respond to the intensity of the light, as well as the temperatures by releasing endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, the hormones associated with alertness, cognition, and well-being.

In terms of exercise strategies, there are things you can do before, during, and after your flight.

Before Your Flight

While you're still fresh and full of energy, try a moderate intensity workout before your flight to give your metabolism a boost and mitigate any pre-travel stress. If you have an early flight and don't have time for a full workout, try doing some yoga or a total-body stretch at home.

Gentle movement and stretching before your flight will help increase flexibility and blood flow in advance of the long haul.

During Your Flight

Though it is tough to move around in such a small space, there are plenty of isometric exercises you can do to keep the blood, muscles, and joints moving. They can even help reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition in which blood clots suddenly form in the veins of your calf or thigh.

Here are seven simple exercises you can do from the comfort of your seat:

  • Ankle circles: Circle your foot clockwise and then counter-clockwise. Repeat 10 times per foot.
  • Foot pumps: Raise your heels together, contracting the calf muscles at the top, and release. Repeat 10 times.
  • Knee hugs: Raise a knee toward your chest, hugging it at the top for 10 to 15 seconds, and then release. Repeat 10 times per leg.
  • Neck rolls: Drop your ear toward your shoulder and gently roll your head toward your chest from side-to-side, up to 10 times per side.
  • Shoulder rolls: Slowly roll your shoulders forward, upward, backward, and downward, and then reverse directions. Repeat 10 times.
  • Forward bends: Bend as forward as your seat allows, reaching to grab the front of your knees. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds and ease yourself back up. Repeat up to 10 times.
  • Seated spinal twist: In your chair, twist your torso to the right and hold the armrest with both hands to stretch your back and spine. Then rotate the torso to the left and hold the same position.

Repeat the routine every two to three hours while you are in flight. You should also get up every two hours to walk and stretch your legs for at least five to 10 minutes.

After You Arrive

To help combat jet lag when you arrive, take a brisk 20- to 30-minute walk outdoors in the fresh air. If it's not too late in the day, follow up with a light workout (with low weight) in the hotel gym. If you don't have access to a gym, try a no-weight workout in your room or follow a gentle yoga routine on your laptop.

The next day and for several days after, follow the same gym routine you would at home. If you typically workout at 8:00 a.m., do the same in your new time zone. Even though you may be on holiday, doing this for the first two or three days can pay off by improving alertness and reducing fatigue.

While some people will tell you to exercise in the morning if you are flying east and exercise in the afternoon if heading west, there is no evidence that either will alter your circadian rhythms. Remember that the aim of exercise is to reduce symptoms of jet lag, not reset your biological clock.

The one thing you do not want to do is exercise late at night. Doing so will it make it harder to wind down if you're jet-lagged and may only increase the risk of insomnia.

Other Useful Tips

Exercise is only one part of the strategy to fight jet lag. Equally important is diet, sleep hygiene, and the appropriate use of supplements. Among some of the more useful tips:

  • Stay well hydrated during your flight and continue to hydrate yourself after you've landed. Dehydration can add to the fatigue you are already experiencing
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine during your flight and 24 hours beforehand. Both have a diuretic effect and may interfere with the sleep you should be getting in flight.
  • Upon arrival, eat soon after you land and as close to your local meal time as possible.
  • Keep to a normal meal schedule based on the local time, maintaining a 12-hour window for your meal times (for example, 8:00 a.m. for breakfast and 8:00 p.m. for dinner).
  • Avoid excessive light exposure, including bright electronic screens, at least one hour before you plan to go to sleep.
  • The supplement melatonin may help improve sleep-wake patterns in the first few days after landing, although drowsiness and dizziness are possible.
  • Another natural supplement known as pycnogenol (pine bark extract) is believed to decrease jet lag symptoms, although it may cause dizziness and upset stomach.
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