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The Best Way to Stretch On an Airplane

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For those of us who swear by our daily workouts, being crunched into an airplane seat can be torturous—after all, sitting still for hours tends to leave us stiff, tired, and tight. And if you can get up to move around? Airplane aisles aren't exactly spacious (and you might as well forget about it if the food cart is there).

But get this: Matt Delaney, C.S.C.S., a Tier X health coach at Equinox, says it actually is possible to work your muscles without leaving your seat. "Time spent on a plane can be incredibly productive if you have the right mindset and tools," he says.

That's why Delaney always travels with a pair of trigger point balls and spends a portion of the flight rolling his muscles (also called self-myofascial release). (You can find trigger point balls at just about any sporting goods store, on Amazon, or from retailers like TPTherapy.com.)

Why are they so key to surviving a long flight? "When it comes to circulation, think of your muscles like a sponge that has been sitting out to dry on the sink for a few days," says Delaney. If you were to try to stretch or twist it, it would likely tear. If you held that same sponge under water and then tried? It'd be more pliable.

"Sitting in repetitive postures—in front of a computer, on a plane—for extended periods of time turns our muscles into something like a dry sponge," says Delaney. Self-myofascial release is like soaking the sponge—it can minimize this effect, he says.

How? Go back to the sponge: If you squeeze the fluid out then place it back in the water, as soon as you release your grip it will immediately fill itself up. Delaney explains: "When you put pressure on the muscles and surrounding fascia then release, fresh blood—which carries nutrients and clears waste products—will begin to fill the tissue, leaving it more hydrated and pliable."

Thus, he says, a good self-massage sesh can minimize stiffness and improve circulation, range of motion, tissue hydration, posture, and mobility.

Plus, even though we hear a lot about the dangers of sitting (and sure, being on your bum for too long can contribute to seriously tight hips and issues like obesity), sitting actually provides a unique opportunity to work the muscles of the posterior chain—your calves, hamstrings, glutes, spinal muscles, and other muscles on your backside. These areas tend to be a common source of pain, says Delaney. Sitting lets you use your bodyweight to apply pressure into some of them.

So where should you start? Follow Delaney's tried-and-true, head-to-toe method on your next flight. It takes between five and 10 minutes and can be repeated a few times during your flight. If you have two trigger balls, you can complete both sides at once; or with one trigger ball you can repeat on the other side after completing the first. You'll walk off feeling better than you did when you boarded (even if you do get a few weird side-eye glances).

In-Flight Self-Myofascial Release Exercises

  • Starting with your feet, roll the plantar fascia (the tissue connecting your heel to your toes) and the arches.
  • From there, focus on your calves, making sure to work the ball from the heel up toward the knee. (Working them in that direction assists venous return of blood to the heart, which can be slowed down during periods of extended sitting.)
  • Next stop is the hamstrings: Place one of the balls underneath the center of your leg, right around where the seat ends (just above the knee). Using the weight of the leg to provide some downward pressure, work from the end of the seat up toward your hip, rocking your leg slowly from side to side on the ball while maintaining downward pressure.
  • Once you've made your way up your upper leg, place the ball in the side of your glute and change your leg position, resting the ankle of the leg you're working on top of your opposite knee. Lean slightly into the side where the ball is and rock forward and backward slowly in your seat.
  • Lastly, move to the erectors (the muscles on either side of your spine). You can access both sides simultaneously by placing a ball on either side of your spine starting just above the sacrum and traveling up toward the head. Work one spinal segment at a time both longitudinally and across the fibers in more of a back-and-forth motion until you reach your neck.

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