There’s no getting around it: travel is hard on your health. Jet lag, climate changes and sleep disruption make you more susceptible to getting sick, and exposure to shared surfaces — airplane tray tables, airport elevator buttons, those handheld audio guides at museums — means getting up close and personal with more germs than you’d probably like.
Add to that the likely trifecta of too much alcohol, rich restaurant meals and schedules too packed to exercise or even relax, and it’s a wonder professional travellers aren’t constantly sick. (That’s not even considering common chronic diseases, for which risk increases as sleep, nutrition and activity decrease.)
But don’t despair! With a little planning, self-care and learned germaphobia, you can lower your risk of catching colds and flu while boosting your health in the long-term, too. Here are a few ideas to get started.
1. Eat better
101: Always travel with a few nutritious snack bars, especially on overnight flights when you’ll be rushing when you hit the ground and you know the airplane breakfast barely counts as food (if it exists at all). At buffets, load up on vegetables for your first round before going back to browse what else is on offer. At all meals, try to follow the colour rule: at the very least, eat something green and something orange every day, and if you can, throw in the rest of the spectrum, too.
201: Visit a local grocery store when you arrive to buy nutritious snacks and breakfast food — you’ll be less likely to splurge on pancakes at the hotel restaurant if you can sleep in and have yogurt and almonds in your room instead. Plan ahead to find your destination’s top healthy (but delicious!) restaurants so you know where to go when you plan lunch meetings and other outings. If you already know where you’ll be eating, scan menus in advance to plan what you might choose to eat.
2. Exercise more
101: Walk everywhere possible — you might be surprised at how often a shuttle or taxi is called in to transfer people just a short walk away, and experts say just 20 to 30 minutes of walking a day makes a huge difference in people’s health. (This sometimes means packing sensible shoes instead of, or as well as, the sky-high ones.) Take the stairs instead of elevators, and stand instead of sitting when you can. Bonus: exercise and time spent outdoors can help alleviate jet lag.
201: Sneak in a workout every day, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes. Do push-ups and squats in your room, use the machines in the hotel gym or sneak out for a run. Download fitness apps like Lululemon’s Om Finder (helpful to search out yoga and fitness studios) and Nike Training (for strength workouts). On press trips, request active outings as part of the itinerary.
3. Get some sleep
101: Pack an eye mask and earplugs or headphones for the plane, and sleep as much as you can. On red-eyes from Canada to Europe, for instance, maximize your rest by eating dinner in the airport and trying to doze off right after takeoff. Load your iPod with your favourite soothing music, and try sleep apps like Sleep Deep Hypnosis by Erick Brown, which can help you drop off sooner and better.
201: Switch to the local time zone as quickly as possible, even moving toward it in advance of your trip. Try taking melatonin to help you get to sleep when travelling eastward, and reduce or eliminate caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Take naps when you’re tired, and try to arrange your schedule so you can sleep in at least every few days rather than always having something to be up for.
4. Avoid germs
101: Develop a habit of touching as little as possible with your hands: press elevator buttons with your elbow, for example, and open doors with your hip. Also try not to touch your face, and wash your hands with soap and water as often as possible, following up with hand sanitizer on planes. Stay hydrated, especially on planes — low humidity means dried-out nasal passages, which makes you more susceptible to viruses.
201: Drink water on planes (and elsewhere) rather than pop, coffee or alcohol, which are less hydrating. Cut back on sugar, too. Experiment with various supplements: many travellers swear by vitamin powder Emergen-C (just mix into your bottle of water), drops of oil of oregano, or probiotic capsules to help them stay well. Book the window seat — aisle seats are apparently more likely to be contaminated due to increased passenger traffic — and use airplane bathrooms as little as possible.
301: Consider travelling with disinfectant wipes or spray and know how they work (some viruses aren’t killed until the area has been wet for at least a minute or more, and most disinfectants have no effect on noroviruses). Take your cue from people with severe food allergies and wipe down tray tables, seat pockets, armrests and other surfaces as soon as you sit in your seat on a plane, and do the same with your hotel room.