TRAVEL ERGONOMICS PRIMER:
HOW TO AVOID A LITANY OF PAIN
R. Fedin, The Wellness Concierge®
Before You Go
On the Road
At the Hotel
You’re more likely to incur
headaches, back and neck pain from extended periods of sitting in your
(usually non-ergonomically correct) office chair than you will during
your captivity as a coach passenger.
But whether you’re flying short hops, transcon, or even lengthier
flights, prevention and attention can save a lot of unnecessary pain.
A chiropractor and other experts share their strategies for pain-free
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If the souvenirs of your life
on the road include an assortment of aches, pains, sprains, and strains,
take note. Injuries to the neck, shoulders, back, and knees—the areas
of the body most vulnerable to the ill-effects of frequent travel—
The key, according to Manhattan-based chiropractor Dr. Eugéne Tartell,
whose clientele includes veteran road warriors, is to “keep your body
healthy and strong and stay loose and limber so you’re less at risk for
Here’s her advice for pain-free travel along with tips from other
BEFORE YOU GO
Prep for Flights Up your water intake and avoid
alcoholic beverages (they’re dehydrating) for at least 24 hours
before departure; aim for a good night’s sleep.
The more hydrated and rested you are, the more relaxed and limber you’ll
be, which will help reduce the risk of strains and sprains.
Pick the Right Luggage Even if you always check your
luggage, opt for pieces of a size and shape that you can actually
lift—sans someone else’s help—if you have to. The presence of wheels is
no guarantee you won’t get stuck heaving it up into an overhead cabin
bin or elsewhere (think car trunk, security checkpoints, and luggage
carousels) during your travels.
Keep in mind that your strength ebbs during the day and the piece
that’s manageable when you hit the road may feel like it weighs a lot
more when your fatigued and jet-lagged body finally has to haul it
around at your destination.
Test the length of the telescopic handles on a wheeled style to make
sure you don’t have to contort yourself or bend too low to haul it
around. If you need more length, a longer strap or a special grip
handle (Check out Magellan’s #LA690 Comfort Grip Handle that can add
up to 8 inches and allows you to pull your luggage behind you
without twisting your wrist and arm; 800-962-4943) are ergo-safe
Details. Details. Details. Make sure all hand, shoulder,
and other straps are sturdy and will actually support the weight you’re
likely to carry. Look for well-padded and adjustable straps and try them
in various positions to be sure they’re comfortable for you.
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Check Your Feet
Easy on, easy off may be your biggest concern given today’s heightened
security. But comfort and support are critical. Shoes that are even
mildly tough on your feet will only get worse as the hours pass. And
resist the temptation to travel sans socks—aside from the sanitary
considerations, there’s the issue of unexpected blisters.
The goal is a choice that’s comfortable yet firm and supportive rather
than a pair that’s too tight or confining—or so comfortable that you
slip and slide out of them.
Don’t even think about heading out in a new pair of shoes. Styles
that were amazingly comfy in the store can turn surprisingly painful
with no warning.
And is there any female road warrior who would even think of wearing
Prada pumps or Manolo Blahnick heels en route? Even the flying
fashionistas know better. Given the range of styles on the market for
both men and women, you don’t have to choose between comfort and
TIP: Wear Protective
Many travelers swear by special protective insoles
that cushion feet and act as shock absorbers. (Check your local
Magellan’s Bio Insoles.)
ON THE ROAD
Avoid Unnecessary Strain:
Carrying light luggage over even short distances can strain muscles in
the neck, shoulders, and arms. Fast walking and running only increase
the stress on already strained nerves.
If you are constantly toting several items, use a fold-up, portable
luggage cart. Today’s models are lightweight yet sturdy—and a lot
cheaper than a visit to a massage therapist or chiropractor.
When you reach the luggage carousel, don’t contort your body (A posture
adapted by those who only notice their bag after it’s passed by
on its way to another spin on the carousel.) to try and grab your bag.
Wait till you can be in front of the bag and can pick it up (bend at
your knees) and then quickly place it back on the ground. If you need
assistance, ask for help. (Again, better safe than sorry.)
Aim for Balance:
If you’ve ever watched travelers you’ll notice that they sort of “list”
to one side or the other. The usual stance: handbags, computer bags,
and/or luggage slung on one shoulder with the opposite arm pulling a
wheeled bag or cart on the other. It’s a chiropractic nightmare.
Some folks aim to bypass shoulder-toting aches and pains by either
strapping or placing extra bags atop their “wheelie” luggage. Depending
on the size and weight of that bag, and the gear you place on it, you
can end up pulling some mega-weight behind you, which can lead to its
own physical problems. (And if you’re toting so much that you have to
periodically stop to avoid tip-overs, you need to be thinking “checked
luggage” or Fed Ex!)
In all cases, aim to evenly distribute the weight of your luggage
between two hands or shoulders.
For shoulder bags: Avoid direct, downward pressure (the kind you
feel when you put a strap directly on your shoulder), which can strain
the muscles in the neck and upper body. Instead, sling the shoulder
strap over your neck so it rests on your opposite shoulder and the bag
is riding across your chest and hip.
If you favor one shoulder or hand when carrying luggage and other items,
periodically switch to the other.
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Consider Your Overall Health and Fitness Level
Given the distance in some airports and today’s long lines, you need to
make a realistic assessment of what you can carry through the airport
and on to the plane. Lifting weights at the gym is one thing.
Dragging around heavy weights for hours on end (as can happen) is more
fatiguing than you can imagine, until you find yourself panting for
breath and in pain. Travel is already stressful; you don’t need to add
to it toting more than you can comfortably carry for the duration of
your departure or return.
If you have health problems such as congestive heart failure or
respiratory or lung problems, it’s especially important that you don’t
overtax yourself. Check all of your luggage except a manageable
carry-on or send it ahead. And use a fold-up luggage cart or an
airport-supplied one. (But don’t count on the latter being available.
Better to take-along your own and stow it onboard.)
If you really shouldn’t be carrying anything or walking any distance,
plan ahead and arrange to hitch a ride in one of those special carts.
TIP: Protect Your Forearms and Wrists
your wrists and forearms are not particularly strong, consider
wrapping them in an Ace bandage for extra support. It can minimize
the strain on them and help avoid sprains.
Seat Selection Even if you know the location of the
most-desirable seats (translation: those with the most legroom), you may
not always secure them. Plan for the worst-case scenario—cramped,
knees-in-your-chest, coach seats.
Drink (Lots and Lots of) Water! Staying well-hydrated
helps you avoid pulled muscles. Avoid caffeine-flavored drinks and
alcohol; they’re diuretic liquids that can leave you dehydrated. Aim to
drink at least 8 ounces of water for each hour of a flight. Don’t wait
till you’re thirsty—by then, you’re already dehydrated.
Watch Your Posture
For most people, tension and stress accumulate in the lower back and
neck areas so you need to be watchful of how you hold your head and sit.
Sometimes, simply sitting up straight, tightening your stomach muscles,
and regularly shifting your seated position is all you’ll need to stay
TIP: Bend With Care
When picking up anything, bend at the knees (not
over at the waist) and use the strength of your legs, not your
back, to lift an item.
on your lower back. Put a small pillow in the curve of your lower
Place luggage on the floor
in front of you (or use a portable foot rest such as the
folding Foot Rest, #IF477, from Magellan’s; see pix at left).
Rest your feet on it so that your knees are higher than your hips to
reduce back strain and painful cramping. This is especially important
for folks who are short and those with circulatory problems.
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periods of sitting can compress nerves, which can lead to numbness and
tingling in your legs or worse. When permissible, get up and walk
around the cabin.
If you can’t leave your seat, shift positions or do stretching
exercises in place. In the unlikely event that you have the space and
can do it, don’t cross your legs. It limits circulation at
a time when it’s already compromised.
You can’t do calisthenics in coach, but you can twist your torso
slowly from side to side, extend your hands vertically over your head
and stretch, and lift your legs up and rotate your ankles without
incurring the wrath of a seatmate. Neck rolls take even less effort.
For more relaxing moves, pop yoga teacher Carol Dickman’s audiotape
Inflight Yoga into your Walkman. The 42-minute tape
includes stretches and postures that are easily managed in your seat.
To hear an audio excerpt,
Protect Your Neck For anyone who has ever fallen asleep
on any kind of public transportation, the worst horror is not finding
that you’ve been sleeping on a seatmate’s shoulder but rather that you
are now awake—with an excruciating neck- and headache.
Some experts caution against sleeping on planes (as if that were even
possible in some instances) because of their concerns about
misalignment and resultant pain. Since there are times when you are
going to want to relax and nap or sleep, it’s better to opt for using
an inflatable neck pillow that you can place under your neck or in the
c-curve on the side of your neck to support it. (Check out
Travel Pillows page for suggestions and online sellers.)
If you don’t want to tote another item, roll up a piece of clothing
(sweatshirt, sweater, shawl, windbreaker, etc.) and use that instead.
Your last option: Those small airline pillows, if you can find them.
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If you’ve had knee or leg surgery or have circulatory or vascular
health problems, comfort and safety may be a higher priority than the
price of your airfare depending on the length of your flight.
I’ve seen people who literally could not walk after a few hours in a
cramped plane. If you face these challenges, you may need to up your
travel budget or put up your miles for an upgrade to less-constricted
airline seating. Barring those options, you’ll need to become a
mini-expert on carrier seating and flight capacity.
In any event, allow for the possibility that you won’t be deplaning
at “full-strength.” Which means considering whether you’ll need time
to rest before leaving the airport, may require assistance, or may
need someone else to drive you after you deplane.
In some instances, using a folding cane can provide additional
support. Given the number of twentysomethings sporting casts and
canes, you’ll be in good company. And you may even inspire some
interesting conversation. (Check out the cane selection from
If you can’t stand for long periods of time and are concerned about
long lines, it might be worth investing in a
portable seat, which is infinitely preferable to the floor. It
can really help minimize unnecessary fatigue and save your strength.
Comfortable seating is essential whether you’re driving for short or
extended periods and whether you’re a driver or a passenger.
Some car renters (maybe not you, of course, but some of your friends)
have been known to squeeze themselves into car models they love at the
expense of their comfort. (It’s akin to women wearing those wonderful
designer heels that leave them crippled or unable to walk comfortably
even when they’re removed.)
TIP: Remove Bulky Items From Your Pockets
friend who frequently drives long distances suggests removing
keys, wallets, and other bulky, hard, or unusually shaped items
from your trouser or jacket pockets. Such items can dig into
nerves or muscles causing discomfort or forcing you to an
Worse, some people try to save bucks by squeezing their oversized
frames into sub-compacts. What you “save” in car rentals may end up
being spent on medical care and rehab. And if you arrive feeling
awful, think how it will affect your performance and effectiveness.
Before you wheel away, check out the seats. Opt for the firmest
and most comfortable for you. Take the time to properly adjust your
seat for maximum comfort: Your knees should be slightly bent and your
seat positioned so that you can easily reach both the pedals and the
Sound obvious? Consider how many people hurl themselves into a car and
peel away before making adjustments. Or those who hurry out,
vowing to fix anything at the next light—which is sometimes many
uncomfortable miles away.
During long road trips, use a lumbar pillow (for lower back
support) and shift positions. As on a plane, you should monitor
your posture and allow yourself time to stop and stretch and walk
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AT THE HOTEL
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream…
Focus on the bed. Even if you won’t have a lot of time for
sleeping, it’s essential that the bed be comfortable.
The firmer the mattress the better (Yes, we know that some of you love
soft and lumpy but it’s not good for you!). Lay down on the bed
before you commit to taking a room.
If there’s no room alternative, you can ask if another mattress—or
even a bedboard—is available. Barring that, consider placing the
mattress on the floor. (Note: If you’ve reached this option, it’s time
to rethink where you stay! Even a local bed-and-breakfast can be more
Pillows are a whole other story—and often a “make-or-break it”
component in restful snoozing. For those with sleep, neck, or leg
problems, the number and type of available pillows can be a real
If you need a special pillow, pack (or send ahead) what you need.
Even luxury hotels with numerous pillow options may not have a usable
model. Travel product retailers and even some health sites offer a
variety of travel-size, packable pillow options that can sub for your
TIP: Double-Duty Pillows
When choosing a neck-supporting pillow for use when flying or
driving, consider how it will work either alone or with
traditional pillows on the bed in your hotel room. Sometimes a
simple, inflatable, curved neck pillow paired with a traditional
pillow is all you'll need for great sleep.
How to Avoid Being Mangled by Makeshift Workstations
Even the best hotels are not known for their ergonomically correct
furniture and in-room setups for working travelers. I and others have
wrenched necks, backs and knees attempting to make electrical and
phone connections, not to mention moving the furniture and lighting so
that one can actually work in a room.
If you can’t easily accomplish these tasks, slip someone in
housekeeping a few bucks to assist you. It’ll be the best money you’ve
Review the room setup in terms of the heights and locations of
furniture and lighting. Depending on your own height and size, and
that of the furniture, you might find it easier to work on a coffee
table in front of a couch or chair rather than at the desk.
At all costs, avoid working on the bed. You’ll end up hunched over
your laptop or papers.
If a surface height is too high for easy working, you can often prop
yourself up on telephone books or pillows. And if you’re in a room
without a desk or work surface, see if you can borrow a room-service
table cart to use as a work surface.
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