The Joys of Air Travel

Flying is a pain, really. Too many lines, too much running through terminals and waiting around. Removing shoes and jackets and belts and putting it all back on while people push you out of the way. But it’s the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B, especially when Point B is across the country (like my family). It’s a pain, sure, but it’s a necessary one.

And then there are the airplane seats. For the vast majority of us who travel in economy class, these one-size-fits-all seats don’t actually fit anyone. Why must they be so uncomfortable?

Office chairs can be uncomfortable, but they can be adjusted. Indeed, there are people who make a living by adjusting chairs and desks in order to minimize workplace injury. But it’s not the same with airplane seats. Different people of different sizes sit on these seats for every flight, but instead of making them adjust to everyone’s size and needs, these seats just don’t adjust at all.

Ah, the things that airlines can get away with.

Well, what’s wrong with the seats? The easiest problem to identify is the lack of lumbar (low back) support. We hear about lumbar support all the time because it’s the essential thing for office chairs. When you’re sitting at a desk, the curve in your lower spine needs the most support. Airplane seats don’t have this, although it’s easy to improvise with a jacket or pillow.

The biggest problem, I would say, is neck support. Unlike office chairs, which typically only rise to the upper or mid back, airplane seats cradle the entire posterior side of the body. And since a good portion of fliers fall asleep or at least rest their head during their trips, they’re going to utilize the upper portion of their seat.

I’ve already written about how important neck support is when you sleep. Your neck has an inward curve that needs to be stabilized with a pillow. Unfortunately, what the airplanes pass for neck support is worse than nothing. There’s a pillow-ish thing attached to the seat around neck level, sure, but here’s the kicker: You can’t adjust it. So unless you’re the perfect height (and you don’t slouch or move at all during the flight), the neck support won’t actually be at your neck.

Whether you’re flying across country or just sitting at a desk, being in a sustained position for hours at a time is troublesome. Your muscles need to take this time to relax, but sometimes that’s not possible. On an airplane, the comfort of your body – your arms, legs, gluts, etc – really depends on how you sit and who you sit next to.

Are you able to use your arm rests? (and, given that, are the armrests at a proper height?) If your arms are stuck too tightly by your side (in the case of a larger neighbor encroaching on your space), your shoulders (and pecs!) can cramp up. The same is true for your legs. Perhaps you can fix the problem by sitting differently, but this might put uncomfortable pressure on your tailbone and hips. Really, sitting in an airplane seat will always bother at least a few muscle groups.

So air travel is terrible for your muscles. Big surprise there. But what’s the solution?

Some easy things to do: Use pillows! Last time I traveled I brought my neck pillow from home, but those travel pillows will do the trick as well. Adjust yourself throughout the flight. If you spend an hour curled up at the window, spend the next 30 minutes sitting up. Recline your seat: it’s not much, but even that slight tilt is better than nothing. Get up and walk around. Don’t worry about bothering your neighbors – they should get up and move too, so really you’re doing them a favor.

And don’t forget to do some neck stretches after you land! If you can, try to schedule a massage soon after traveling, or at least demand a back rub from whoever you’re visiting. Traveling can be a pain in many ways, but at least you can do a few things to minimize its negative effects on your muscles.

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