Aviation certainly has its ups and downs impacting our health. It provides many obstacles that impede our ability to keep our own internal engine, the systems of our bodies, running smoothly. Conversely, we are held to high medical standards of certification that requires ongoing maintenance to keep our spot in the flight deck for which we worked so hard. While the health and fitness task can feel overwhelming at times, there are obtainable solutions with a simple change in perspective. This article will focus on how you can increase activity with your ever-changing and demanding schedule.
Instead of looking at your next 4-day trip, to which you have to commute, as another barrier to your goals, use that time to your advantage! Like many, I have spent the past “lost decade” in commercial aviation fighting an uphill battle: At the bottom of the seniority list, on reserve for eternity, commuting, three carriers (soon to be four owed to consolidation) and financially crippled. It’s all about timing, right? In order to persevere, I had to think outside the box for my own quality of life improvements. Whether you are just beginning a new fitness routine and new to exercise, or you are a seasoned athlete, what follows will be beneficial. Do your best to apply the following tips if you are looking to maximize your time, increase your quality of life and health dividends.
There was a period of time when my seniority blessed me with nothing but sleepless standups (continuous duty overnights). It took some time to adjust to the schedule and I was soon able to bid for standups containing longer “rest periods” than others. I found that this schedule allowed me much more free time during the day for other things, as long as I fit in a nap and included healthy foods to manage the fatigue. Taking a terrible schedule can open up an opportunity for all the exercise and playtime with your family that you can handle. Not bad! I ended up bidding this schedule, on purpose, for over three years because I was able to maximize the benefits from what had seemed a “death sentence schedule.” If you are feeling tired and need a more restorative day, give yoga a try or go for a walk or bike to the store instead of driving. If you are feeling rested, hit the gym, go for a run or do something active with the family.
What happens when you are stuck with nothing but red-eye trips – flying the backside of the clock (WOCL-window of circadian low)? These are similar to the above example, except that you don’t make it home the next morning. Also, not all red-eyes are created equal; LAX-DFW isn’t as bad as SFO-BOS, which is isn’t as bad as OGG-SFO. Try to find trips that overnight in cities that provide easy fitness access when you are short on sleep and time. Try for overnights with a welcoming gym or a location with access to running trails or with bike rentals and pleasant weather to help with motivation. An added bonus is that your first day begins so late that you can maximize that day at home to stay in your normal fitness routine. A 4-day trip really becomes a 3-day trip. If you bid this way four times per month, you have just won four extra days off at home.
Another tip I used to my advantage was to find what overnights I could bid consistently and researched a national workout gym chain that covers multiple cities like 24hr Fitness or LA Fitness. For $30 per month, I was guaranteed a health club anywhere from my crash pad to my overnights, with full access to weights, cardio bikes and even swimming pools and yoga classes. This tactic allowed me to train all the way up to my first full Ironman while flying 18 days per month! When the overnight has nothing to offer, ask the hotel for a ride or consider Uber or Lyft. There may be a YMCA nearby. Most will provide van transportation and gym day-passes are affordable. Some gyms even partner with local hotels by providing discounted or free access. There are also options for stand-alone spin classes and yoga studios. Most of these businesses are conveniently located next to juice bars and healthy grocery stores to help you refuel afterward and pack less food all together. Bonus!
Maybe you are overnighting in a rural area with no access to the facilities mentioned. Don’t despair! My personal favorite resource for this situation is to utilize a workout app like Strava. The app has a search feature to find local running and cycling trails. Within five minutes of walking into your hotel room, you can be changed into running shoes and ready for an amazing trail run and enjoying some scenery you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. With this app, you can also compare your performance to local athletes and set your goals higher for the next time you are in town.
You can even get in a short but intense workout right in your hotel room by doing a few high intensity interval circuits. Give the Tabata training method a try. It consists of four minutes total with eight rounds of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. You can incorporate all kinds of body weight exercises for a killer workout. One example is alternating squats (or jump squats) and pushups. Do squats for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds (while getting in the pushup position). Then do pushups for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds. Continue to alternate these two exercises until four minutes have passed. Put a few of these intervals back-to-back and you will have had a great workout!
Now, going for a trip doesn’t sound so terrible. There are plenty of options for any schedule and any overnight. Your trips can be set aside for some “you” time to focus on your health without the interruptions of home life. It’s all about your perspective. The glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. The glass has water in it, so grab it and take a drink. Hopefully, this will help you walk into your next AME visit with confidence.