Stretches and Exercises You Should Do Before, During, and After a Flight

Embrace the mile-high workout.

woman meditating in airplane seat
The trick is prepping way before the flight takes off. | Dasha Petrenko/Shutterstock
The trick is prepping way before the flight takes off. | Dasha Petrenko/Shutterstock

There’s no way around it—traveling takes a lot out of you, especially long-haul flights. Planes these days are cramped and uncomfortable, and sitting for hours while traveling across multiple time zones can leave you feeling lethargic for days afterward.

But there’s some good news: Exercise is one of the best ways to combat jet lag and the muscle fatigue that comes with it. Basic movements can prepare your body and help recover from a flight—and simple stretches can help you feel better and more relaxed while you're in the air. Here's a primer on the best stretches and exercise tips pre- and post-flight—and the key to surviving super-long flights and red-eye travel.

Woman jogging outdoors
Prepare for your post-flight recovery before you even get onboard. | TierneyMJ/Shutterstock

Three days before you fly

The days before your flight are when you prepare your body to recover after your flight. That means sleeping well (not staying up all night so you can sleep on the plane) and getting some exercise—but not too much. Get yourself moving with a 30- or 45-minute workout at moderate intensity on the days leading up to your flight (even basic walking will do). Exercise helps your body tune its circadian rhythms, enhancing your sleep cycle. You want to be feeling your best when you walk onto the plane.

If you're a regular gym junkie, taper your workouts before a long flight, with your last intense workout not fewer than two or three days before you take off. If you exercise too hard right before flying, the flight will prevent your body from properly recovering from the workout. Go ahead and enjoy a moderate-intensity workout routine the day before or the day of your flight, but save some energy—you'll need it.

person stretching at airport
Use that delay to your advantage. | Yevgen Kryukov/Shutterstock

The airport workout

Sitting still for long periods of time, whether on your couch at home or on a plane, doesn't do your body any favors. While you can't do much about the length of your flight, you can offset the inevitable sitting by exercising before your flight. If you have enough time to hit the gym before you head to the airport, great. If not, here's your pre-flight airport workout.

Take a walk. Walk the airport concourse for 15 to 30 minutes before your flight starts boarding. Don't stroll—book it and get your blood flowing. Pretend you are desperately late for a flight as motivation to really get moving.

Stretch out. Once you're at the gate, stretch to keep yourself from getting stiff during the next several hours of sitting. The idea here is to focus on lengthening the muscles that shorten while seated. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the key stretches:

  • Calf stretch: Face a wall, place your palms against the wall, and step your right foot forward, pushing the ball of your foot against the wall with your heel on the ground. Lean forward into the wall as you press down through your right heel, feeling a stretch in your right calf. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch legs.
  • Quad stretch: Stand with your left shoulder about a foot from a wall and place your left palm on the wall lightly for support. Bend your right knee, lifting your foot behind you before grasping the top of your right foot with your right hand. Keeping your right knee pointing toward the ground, use your hand to pull your foot toward the same-side glute, lengthening the quads. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds before switching legs.
  • Hip flexor stretch: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, your hands on your hips. Take a big step forward with your right foot, planting your heel. Bend both knees slightly to "sink" into the staggered stance, then scoop your tailbone under as you press your hips forward until you feel a stretch through the front of your left hip. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch legs.
  • Seated figure four stretch: Take a seat on any sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-distance apart. Lift your left foot from the ground and cross your left ankle over your right knee, allowing your left knee to open outward to form a "four" with your right leg. Place one hand lightly on each knee and sit up straighter in your chair before tipping forward from your hips until you feel a stretch through the outside of your left hip and glute. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, deepening the stretch as you can, before switching legs.
  • Chest opener: Stand tall with your feet planted hip-distance apart, your arms at your sides. Clasp your hands together behind your glutes and press your palms downward, drawing your shoulders back as you simultaneously look up toward the ceiling, stretching your chest wide. Hold for 30 seconds.
person doing yoga in airplane seat
A little seated yoga and stretching can do wonders. |

The mile-high workout

There's only so much you can do once you've boarded your flight, especially if you get stuck in the middle seat (my sympathies, friend). The main thing to remember is to keep moving. If possible, get up every 30 minutes to take a walk down the aisle (drinking lots of water will make these jaunts feel more necessary), and follow up each walking break with these seated exercises.

  • Extend and roll: Extend your right leg, lifting your foot from the ground, then roll your ankle 20 times (10 circles to the inside and 10 circles to the outside). Repeat on the opposite leg.
  • Ankle see-saw: Sit tall in your seat and lift your heels from the ground, pressing through the balls of your feet to rise high on your toes. Lower your heels back to the floor, then lift your toes from the ground, pressing through your heels. Continue this forward-backward ankle see-saw motion 20 times in total.
  • Shoulder shrug and roll: Sit tall and shrug your shoulders as high as possible, drawing them toward your ears. Hold for five seconds, release, and repeat. After doing two shrugs, roll your shoulders forward five times, then roll them backward five times.
  • Yes and no: Overexaggerate a nod and a shake of the head by first slowly drawing your chin to your chest before you look up at the ceiling. Repeat the nod five times before performing a head shake, first turning your head all the way to the left, then all the way to the right. Repeat the head shake five times.
  • Seated spinal twist: Sit tall and cross your right thigh over your left. Place your left hand on top of your right knee, then twist your torso to the right, placing your right hand on your seat behind you as you look back over your right shoulder. Hold for five seconds, then repeat to the opposite side.
  • Forward fold: Sit tall in your chair with feet hip-distance apart. Tip forward from the hips, keeping your back straight, folding your chest over your thighs. Allow your head to hang loose between your knees and hold the position for as long as you feel comfortable doing so.
Woman doing yoga on the beach
Once you arrive, get outside for any type of activity—even a walk. | oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

Immediately after your flight

Right after your flight, you're bound to feel stiff, particularly through your quads, hips, shoulders, and chest. Walk briskly to get your blood pumping again, then cycle through the same stretches you performed pre-flight to loosen up all those shortened muscles. You can probably go through all five of them before your checked bag hits the conveyor belt.

To combat jet lag

Getting your circadian rhythms back in order will fight the fatigue and disorienting feel of jet lag. Combine exercise and natural sunlight—which stimulates the release of the hormone serotonin to boost mood and wakefulness—to get your mojo back. Shortly after you arrive at your destination, either the same afternoon or first thing the next morning, head outside for some moderate-intensity activity. Go for a hike, take a bicycling tour, or sign up for a beach yoga class—anything to get you active, and, ideally, outside.

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Laura Williams is a freelance health writer with a master’s degree in exercise science. She hasn’t followed a “real” diet a single day in her life. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.