How to stretch on an airplane without looking like a crazy person

No need to atrophy in that economy seat

I know I should stay moving during flights. I know it's no good for my health to be sitting for long periods of time. (Sitting is the new smoking, after all.) I also know scary things like deep-vein thrombosis are very real risks when flying, too. Nothing is more unnatural than being crammed into an economy seat for hours on end.

The reality is I don't end up moving from where I'm wedged. Even if I always try to snag an aisle seat just for the freedom of being able to be up and down whenever I please.

After feeling particularly awful after over a day's worth of back-to-back-(to-back) flights from which I could have sworn I atrophied into a blob of a person, I decided I needed to do my body better when flying. I turned to my friend Wade Brill, a certified Pilates instructor and life coach who takes plenty of flights herself. In short? Do as much as possible to keep blood flowing and prevent sedentariness.

(More from Map Happy: How to pick between a bulkhead or exit-row seat)

While it would be great to get in some jumping jacks or real exercise during a flight, that's just not going to happen. She shared with me some stretches and moves that are effective and easy to do — and shouldn't cause too much concern from fellow flyers.

When seated

It's always the simplest things that can be the hardest, right? Wade, who is someone with impeccable posture — naturally, I myself was slouched over when I began to write this sentence — starts with the basics: sit up straight. "Having length in your spine creates more room for your organs to function, even more space for your lungs to breathe," Wade said.

  • Engage your core. This one is the next step and it's straight from Pilates. In fact it's the basis of Pilates, says Wade. "You want to maintain that abdominal scoop," she says. "You want your transverse abdominus and pelvic floor, which are those deeper abdominal muscles, to be engaged and working." In my experience, you'll know it when you feel it, and although no one will detect you're doing it, it does work. And: "you'll come off the plane not looking like you're rolled up in ball," she said.
  • Clasp your hands behind your back and pull your shoulders back. "You'll have to scoot forward on your chair to make space. This opens up your chest. You also can tilt your head to one side and then the other for a deep neck stretch."
  • Use your fists to push yourself up off the seat. "Round over and with your fists, push yourself up on the seat so you're hovering slightly. This is a deeper core connection that also engages your arms and stretches your lower back."
  • Roll your ankles, wrists, and shoulders. Doing each of these moves one at a time shouldn't raise too many eyebrows.
  • Put a book between your legs and squeeze. This one looks a lot less strange than it sounds, promise. "Work your inner thighs, or adductors, by placing a book between your thighs. Engage your pelvic floor and transverse abdominals — core — and squeeze the book while your legs are parallel hip distance on the floor. Your spine is long."
  • Lift your legs. Keep your back straight and your arms on the armrest for support. (Might have to fight for that.) Engage your core to raise your legs, together, up and down. Sean Ogle from Location 180 details some more leg lift moves, including leg circles.

(More from Map Happy: Entire row on the plane? You'll need a wingman)

When your seat neighbor is gone

Sometimes the travel gods smile down on me and bless me with an empty adjacent seat. These moves are good use of that extra space. And when I'm not so fortunate, well, these also are an option for when a seat mate is taking a long bathroom break.

  • Fold your legs in a Figure 4 and lean down. Bend at the waist so your chest is as close to your lap as possible to stretch the gluteal muscles, Wade says.
  • Hold your arms up like a goal post and twist. In Pilates, this is a spine twist. "Keep your core engaged, ribs pulled in and your spine long. Inhale to prepare, exhale and pulse for 3, 2, 1 to the right, inhale back to center," Wade says. "Grow taller as you switch to other side. This works your obliques and is a chest opener and spine length."

When standing

Ideally, we all should be standing every 20 minutes for two minutes, Wade says, and research backs that up. If I don't even make that happen when I'm sitting at my computer on land, it's far less likely that'll happen on a flight. I always try to take some extra time to stand and stretch when I'm already up. (I confess I am one of those people back by the bathrooms limbering up.)

  • Fold in half and hang down. "With your legs hip distance apart bend at your waist. Grab your opposite elbows with your hands and let yourself hand, putting your weight in the balls of your feet. This stretches the lower back and hamstrings."
  • Lunge from side to side. Doing this slowly looks less ridiculous, I've learned from experience. Wade says she like this one for hitting the inner thighs and hips.

(More from Map Happy: In defense of the aisle seat)

For bonus points, Wade swears by yoga tune-up balls. The rubber balls are about palm-sized and make for surprisingly, gloriously deep massages. Wade recommends rubbing one on the neck, back, and shoulders against the seat, as well as under the feet, or even along leg and arm muscles. "These are really good at releasing trigger points and for fascial muscle release," she said. "Using these helps release some tension and get blood flowing." Given the circumstances, it feels like a million-dollar massage.

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