As I sit in the left seat looking over at the First Officer, I’m quickly reminded to stop slouching and to be hyper-vigilant of my own posture. I can see their upper-backs rounding forward more and more (Thoracic-spine kyphosis), and their Cervical spine craning forward more and more, the older they get, (Forward Head Posture), and not using any lumbar support for their Lumbar spine, loading up pressure on their discs.
The point of this article is two-fold:
- To raise awareness on the latest research on the occupational health hazards associated with careers that require long-term sitting/sedentary lifestyle, and,
- To make you hyper-vigilant of your sitting-posture in the flight-deck, always.
Regarding the latter, even though there is allegedly an ideal or optimal ‘sitting posture’ that supposedly aligns your spine neutrally, in reality, the healthiest strategy to combat the spinal risks of long-term sitting is to continually adjust your posture into different positions. Don’t just sit in one position even if you think you are sitting ‘properly’ – always change it up and shift your weight around, taking turns utilizing the foot-rests if your flight-deck offers them, various reclining angles, various lumbar-support levels, and even varying your armrest position. Even vary crossing each leg to the left or right. Mixing up your sitting position is the best strategy.
Most of us pilots are familiar with the most common health risks associated with long-term sitting such as back strain & pain, disc bulge & herniation, forward-head posture, blood pooling & clotting in our lower legs, constipation, hemorrhoids, and abdominal distention & bloating (the latter, especially when your uniform requires you to wear a constrictive belt…I say bring back the flight-suit even for commercial pilots so our abdomens can naturally morph into a proper seated position). But a clinical study published by the American Cancer Society states that long-term sitting even contributes to early-death & colon cancer.
Their published study of 120,000 Americans between 1992 & 2006 specifically stated that men who (cumulatively) sit for more than 6 hours per day had a 20% higher overall death rate than those who sat for 3 hours or less per day. For women the overall death rate was 40% greater. Dr. Levine from the Mayo Clinic further adds that “excessive sitting is a lethal activity…of an independent pathology”, meaning that in and of itself the act of long-term sitting directly, negatively affects your health, regardless and independent of other lifestyle factors. The critical span of time seemed to be cumulatively sitting for 6 hours or more each day – which most of us pilots regularly do on a typical day of flying the line, especially if you factor in additional sitting while commuting to work.
These additional health risks of long-term sitting discovered by the American Cancer Society and the Mayo Clinic are more complicated than simply being sedentary & potential weight gain. Obviously our muscles become inactive and our metabolism immediately slows down, but it appears once we’re stagnant for several hours a cascade of harmful, metabolic effects sets off, largely driven by rapid onset of ‘insulin-resistance’, or the body’s inability to efficiently uptake glucose (blood-sugar) into the liver and muscles for energy, thus requiring more insulin secretion. This results in chronic, elevated insulin and sugar levels in the bloodstream, and turbo-charges internal, Omentum-fat. Insulin-resistance normally is a precursor to type-2 or Adult-Onset Diabetes, and is bio-marker for obesity, Metabolic-Syndrome and systemic inflammation. Long-term sitting also seems to shut down the enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids & triglycerides – for vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream, and our leg muscles lose more than 75% of their ability to remove harmful lipo-proteins from the blood. Simply put a single day of flying the line, and our insulin-effectiveness drops by 40% or more. We become insulin-resistant and glucose inefficient. Tight pants and/or belts can also further compound systemic inflammation by squeezing our internal bell-fat and omentum-fat, and, interfere with digestion if we are eating while in the flight deck.
So enough bad news, what can we do save our health? Plenty! And once you’re armed with education and awareness, half the battle is won: Stand up more in the flight deck. Fidget more – yes adjusting your seating position many times not only aides your lumbar spine and gets blood circulating, but it also seems to rev up your metabolism a notch, keeping it out of total hibernation. Take those lavatory breaks when they’re offered, every time. Modify your diet to go low-carbohydrate during your trips. At home you can resume your well-balanced, carb-abundant diet, but on the road, just assume you’re ‘insulin-resistant’ and stick to proteins, healthy fats and high-fiber complex carbs like vegetables. Whole-fruit is still welcome but absolutely no juices and if you must drink soda, make it ‘diet’. Lastly, exercise once you get to the layover hotel! As little as 30 minutes of intense of exercise, especially cardio, can potentially fire up your metabolism for up to 12 hours post-exercise! Take advantage of this before meeting the crew for happy-hour, and you will be literally adding years to your life! Maybe even consider purchasing looser pants, until the commercial airlines allow us to wear more naturally fitting flight-suits. There’s a reason why military pilots wear flight-suits, and it is not because they’re always pulling Gs.