Frequent Travel Takes a Toll on Your Health


Americans are increasingly on the road – whether for business or personal reasons. And while some travel can be a healthy pursuit, jet-setting regularly can also take a toll on your health. In fact, frequent business travelers tend to suffer from health problems ranging from obesity to insomnia.

“Oddly enough, those who never travel and those who travel the most seem to be the sickest,” says Soumya Panchagnula, M.D., a family medicine specialist with Henry Ford Health. “Those who never travel may be restricted by chronic conditions or poor overall health, which prevents them from even boarding a plane. So, for the average ‘healthy’ American, the more you travel, the sicker you are.”

The good news: If you have to travel often for work, there are several steps you can take to stay well. Here are six common health concerns among frequent travelers – and what you can do about them:

1. Sleep. Sleep is a hot commodity for everyone – and lack of shut-eye (whether from travel or not) is major contributor to chronic disease. For travelers, the biggest concern may be something called jet lag disorder, a sleep disturbance that worsens based on the number of time zones you cross. Risk factors include flying east, traveling across multiple time zones and older age.

What to do: You can begin to adjust your schedule by going to sleep and waking up earlier/later a few days before your trip to offset the effect of a time change. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine on your trip can help your body find its rhythm. Also, getting outside in the sunlight will help regulate your biological clock (staying indoors can worsen the situation). Some travelers find that staying hydrated and consistent with meals can help offset jet lag.

woman eating sandwich2. Diet. Convenience foods tend to be loaded with calories, chemicals and preservatives. But when you’re on the road and eating airport (or worse, airline) food, options are not only limited, they’re expensive! Adding to the problem, restaurant portions are typically two to three times higher than recommended, according to the American Heart Association, which contributes to our worsening obesity epidemic.

What to do: Bring food with you to the airport, especially convenient snacks such as whole fruit and nuts. While airport security won’t allow you to carry liquids, you can bring an empty bottle and refill it with water. Once you arrive at your destination, hit the grocery store for fruit, veggies and other healthy snacks to keep handy during your trip. If you have room in your luggage, you can even pack healthy snacks to eat while you’re away, or carry items like instant oatmeal packets in your luggage so you can always have a quick breakfast in your hotel room.

3. Exercise. Ideally, every adult should get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Not only does exercise help stave off chronic disease and keep excess pounds at bay, it can also boost your energy level and productivity. The rub: Frequent travel is usually synonymous with sitting still.

What to do: Spend some time in the hotel gym or go for a run. You can even find workouts on YouTube that you can do in your hotel room without any special equipment. Walk to meetings or meals whenever possible. If you have time at the airport, strolling around a terminal is healthier than just sitting and waiting for your plane to arrive.

4. Musculoskeletal problems. “An airplane seat (and the terminal seats) leave much to be desired in terms of ergonomics,” says Dr. Panchagnula. “This can cause pain and muscle spasms if you fall asleep in an odd position.”

man on computer

What to do: Bring along an ergonomic neck pillow to prevent neck strain and get up and move about the cabin as much as possible during long flights.

5. Emotional well-being. Traveling is not only physically exhausting, it can also be emotionally isolating. “Having a strong social support system can mitigate some of the detrimental effects of frequent travel,” says Dr. Panchagnula. “Without support, travelers may be at risk for depression.” Plus, many airports serve alcohol throughout the day, which can intensify negative emotions.

What to do: Use FaceTime and similar technology to stay in touch with friends and family. Even babies and small children can recognize your voice and face – and both you and your children can draw comfort from those exchanges.

6. Exposure to cold, flu and other viruses. It’s no secret that frequent travelers are at increased risk of contracting bugs. Any surface that is touched by a lot of people could pose a threat. Airplanes, trains and buses are a hotbed for infections thanks to recirculated air, grimy tray tables and dirty bathrooms.

What to do: Keep your hands clean. Hand sanitizers are great in a pinch – and they can do double duty on tray tables, seats and armrests. Just keep in mind that hand sanitizers do not replace soap and water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing hands with soap and warm water for 15 to 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.

“Despite these precautions, if you think travel is taking a toll on your physical, emotional or mental health, it may be time to raise these concerns with your boss and your doctor,” says Dr. Panchagnula. “While face-to-face meetings cannot be replaced, maybe some of the other purposes of your travels can be accomplished with technology.”

To find a doctor or travel health specialist at Henry Ford, visit or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Dr. Soumya Panchagnula is a family medicine doctor seeing patients of all ages at Henry Ford Medical Center – Warren.

Categories: FeelWell