Frequent flying: The highs… and lows

By Dr Eddy Bajrovic*

He’s in a sharp suit, reclining in a leather seat, with laptop open as the smiling flight attendant serves a scotch and soda…

Who could have too much of that? Surely, a jet-setting lifestyle filled with new faces in new places is the stuff of dreams – whether it’s clinching a business deal or rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous in the world’s iconic destinations.

At least, that’s the image of frequent flyers depicted in TV ads and glossy in-flight and travel magazines.

But, there is a dark side to this so-called ‘hypermobility’: One the media ignores and the rest of us don’t see, according to Dr Scott Cohen, from the University of Surrey in England. Dr Cohen headed a team of British and Swedish researchers who investigated how frequent long-distance travel is represented in mass and social media – and the actual reality.

They found that the glamourous images skip over a raft of potentially damaging side effects ranging from jet-lag, to deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and excessive (atmospheric) radiation exposure. Not to mention the stress and loneliness that can come from frequently being far from family and friends. 

 Glamour belies a ‘dark side’ – researchers

 “First-class flights, ‘must-see’ destinations and frequent-flyer programs glamorise hypermobility,” Dr Cohen said.

“It’s exciting, appealing, and exclusive. But, that view ignores the ‘dark side’ of frequent travel.

“The level of physiological, physical and societal stress that frequent travel places upon individuals has potentially serious and long-term negative effects, from the breaking down of family relationships to changes in our genes due to lack of sleep.”

Nor do we see the accumulated physical tiredness that also goes with frequent travel.

“Business travel is often accompanied by early mornings, late evenings and intense working days,” Dr Cohen said.

“Increasingly, business travellers are forced to take economy class, exacerbating physical and mental fatigue and the overall severity of the physical toll.

“This creeping tiredness, repeated jet lag and an accumulation of travel stress may turn chronic. It’s been described as ‘frequent traveller exhaustion’.”

‘Competitive’ social media posts

It is not only traditional media that perpetuates the glamorous image. Travel one-up-man-ship is rife on social media.

“Social media encourages competition between travellers to ‘check-in’ and share content from far-flung destinations,” Dr Cohen added.

“But, the reality is that most people who are required to engage in frequent travel suffer high levels of stress, loneliness, and long-term health problems. There are also wider implications for the environment and sustainability.”

Business travellers can suffer the double whammy of having to race to complete work tasks before handing over to a colleague, while also feeling anxious that things are piling up in their absence – a phenomenon known as ‘inbox overload’. Anxieties over health, personal safety and security, ranging from the loss of data to terrorism, add a further toll on already stressed individuals, Dr Cohen writes.

Rather than being glamourous, hypermobility is frequently an isolating and lonely experience. In some instances, this sense of isolation engenders depression in frequent flyers.

The researchers called for more discussion on the adverse effects of hypermobility to realistically reflect its negative impacts. Read the full study.

Illness is more frequent, too

For frequent flyers, it’s harder to escape the occasional bouts of illness that go hand in hand with international travel.

Having your travel and routine immunisations up to date is a good start to preventing what can be the more severe, even potentially fatal diseases linked to travel to some regions of the world. When visiting areas with mosquito-borne diseases, it’s also a smart idea to pack an effective repellent to avoid bites from disease-carrying mosquitoes that may be lurking in the gardens and grounds of your hotel or resort.

Travellers’ diarrhoea (TD) is the bane of all travellers: up to 70% of people visiting a developing country will develop TD during a two-week stay. It’s the most likely health issue for frequent flyers.

Oral rehydration fluids should be part of every frequent flyer’s first-aid kit as early treatment shortens TD’s duration, reduces discomfort and prevents more severe complications – particularly dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

How to reduce frequent flying’s impact

Most experienced frequent flyers develop personal techniques for reducing its impact on their health. Here are a few tips that work, regardless of how often you travel:

PICK AN AISLE SEAT: Studies have found that passengers in window or middle seats are more susceptible to DVT than those in aisle seats because they’re less likely to move about the cabin.

GO EASY ON ALCOHOL AND CAFFEINE: Limit alcohol and caffeine intake before, during and after your flight. They can cause dehydration and disrupt sleep. Drinking plenty of water reduces the effects of jet lag and counteracts the effects of the cabin’s dry atmosphere on your body, including your eyes. Lubricating drops are useful to refresh eyes that can get red and gritty on a long flight.

GET MOVING: Exercise your legs regularly and walk around the cabin every hour or so. Physical activity improves blood flow and circulation – important for preventing deep vein thrombosis. Wearing compression stockings will also help avoid DVT – just make sure they are fitted to your correct size.

SLEEP SPARINGLY: Try to get some sleep on long flights – but only if it’s night and if the flight schedule has you arriving in the morning.

GET COMFORTABLE: Comfort trumps fashion – especially on long-haul flights. Wear loose-fitting clothes and shoes.

GET IN THE GROOVE: Eat meals appropriate to the local time zone. That is, if you arrive at night eat dinner, not breakfast – even if it’s 6am back home. Walking or sitting outdoors in the sunlight will reduce your body’s production of sleep-inducing melatonin and help reset your body’s internal clock.

USE MEDICATIONS WISELY (IF AT ALL): Use sleeping pills sparingly – they can be habit-forming. Seek advice from your doctor about these medications; they aren’t right for everyone and can have side-effects. Never take them with alcohol.

ON ARRIVAL, CHILL OUT: If possible, give your body time to adjust before scheduling meetings, especially if you’ve travelled across several time zones. Factoring in a rest day at both ends of your journey will give your body time to recover. A return flight that gets you home on a Friday is the perfect end to a busy business trip!


*Dr Bajrovic is the Medical Director of Travelvax Australia.

 For more information on all of the health risks for your overseas journey or to book a pre-departure medical consultation, contact Travelvax Australia’s travel health advisory service on 1300 360 164 (toll-free from landlines).