As we begin a new year and return to work a fairly typical professional activity may include a look ahead to time spent on the road. I made a call for mindful flying through the simple act of choosing the window seat on the outbound article last month.
Here we move from the reflective, perhaps philosophical, to the pragmatic, looking specifically at eating, exercising and jet-lag. These are simple behaviours I’ve experimented with over the years, which have also helped our clients. I hope they may help you progress your own new year objectives and begin to view business travel as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.
Eating on the Road
Being hostage to the food available at an airport, train station or petrol station can lead to a spiral of poor eating choices, compromised business decision-making and weight gain.
When we are tired or stressed, frequent companions during travel, we often make a beeline for processed starchy carbohydrates, high Glycemic Index foods which give us an instant boost through the rapid release of glucose into our bloodstream but which lead to a cycle of spiking and crashing our blood sugar. Witness the behavioural changes in children after the consumption of sugar to realise that adult decisions could easily be affected too. Weight is gained through the surging of insulin which is stored as fat.
A simple remedy relates to a basic understanding of our human anatomy: the size of our stomach is approximately the size of our fist, though a little longer. It stretches of course, yet this tells us that we can achieve satiety by snacking on an amount of food that fills the palm of our hand, such as nuts and dried fruit. Travelling with a “survival pack” will therefore get you through the sticky moments of the journey until you reach a destination where a broader, healthier menu is available.
Exercising on the Road
The key to exercising on the road often relates to hotel planning before the trip, and it’s not what you think. The three elements of executive fitness – incidental movement, aerobic (heart-rate) intensity and strength-based exercise – can be achieved by not stepping near the hotel gym.
When booking a hotel, I look for a multi-story building of at least seven stories. Even if I have only 10 minutes available, I will complete a high intensity interval session in the stairwell of the hotel, sprinting to the top before jogging back down. Such a session may be completed at a lower intensity or take into account a lower level of fitness by walking up and walking down. The heart rate will exhibit the same high and low rhythms as for any interval session.
Strength-based work is often the safest and most valuable when using ones own body weight. No matter how small the hotel room easy-to-do exercises such as planks are a small time commitment yet big gain (try 3 x 10 seconds in plank position with 5 seconds recovery between). The seven-minute workout, first developed by exercise physiologist Chris Jordan at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, may also be easily completed within the confines of a hotel room and there are now many apps available to help guide this.
A final consideration I have for business travel is a suspension trainer, like a TRX. This is composed of two durable nylon straps that fit easily in a small bag for packing and that can be hung on the inside of a door to do a variety of body weight exercises. Just remember to lock the door and put on the do not disturb sign!
Jet-lag is almost wholly due to disruption of our circadian rhythm. Our body expects to be shutting down for the day, and suddenly finds itself in another location at the beginning of the day. Of course, the farther you displace your normal “clock” by travelling across more time zones, the worse jet lag will be. Travelling east is also proven to be more problematic – we adjust only 1 hour/day compared to westward travellers, who adjust 1.5 hours/day. This is because the circadian rhythm has a tendency to lengthen the day (being 24.5 hours) and westward flight also lengthens the day, fitting more with the natural rhythm of the clock as compared to eastward flight, which shortens the day.
If the trip abroad is of a very short duration, there may be the case to suffer for the entire visit and remain on “your own clock”. However, even on short trips, this may be difficult because you will be expected to conform to local hours and perform at your best during them. Several tips for dealing with jet lag include the following:
1. Anticipate the change by moving toward the destination time over a period of days. There is no need to go all the way, yet some movement will minimise the adjustment when you arrive at your destination. This movement may also be done during the travel if, for example, you have a layover, or even on the plane. Since light exposure is the key in moving toward the destination time, I’ve found strategic use of the window blind on a plane to be immensely valuable.
2. Ensure that you are well rested and not sleep deprived before your trip. A large homeostatic (sleep) pressure will exacerbate jet lag effects. If possible, try to sleep on the plane – and so make your body tired before travelling by doing some exercise.
3. When you arrive, switch to the local time immediately. Get outside and get some sunshine. This will help your natural circadian clock to reset as quickly as possible.
4. Common sense and planning go a long way. Schedule that important meeting for when you know you will be most alert, and follow other good practice including eating and exercising as covered above.
I say jet-lag is almost wholly due to circadian rhythm disruption as many of the effects are due to our own choices. As with any aspect of executive health, we have the science and we also have the behaviour. For example, if we consider long-haul travel where a layover is included people often rush to find an opportunity to sit down or sleep – yet we’ve just been sitting or sleeping for hours during the previous flight, and will do so again on the next one. Or we may have a desire to eat and drink – yet we’ve just been eating and drinking for several hours on the preceding flight, and will do so again. Throw in a liberal mix of late night movies and poor hydration. We get to our destination and say, “Jet lag’s killing me!” This isn’t jet lag, it’s a hangover!
I wish you the best as you return to work this month, hopefully free of a hangover, and a happy, healthy and successful 2017.
About the Author
Steven P. MacGregor is Founder of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona [LAB] and author of Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015) Dr. MacGregor has delivered over 1000 sessions the past 5 years in executive health and behavior change for clients including Telefónica, Danone, IESE, IMD, and the BBC. He holds a PhD in Engineering Design Management and has been a visiting researcher at Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. His executive education teaching is informed by academic interest in sustainability and design and he is an article reviewer for, among others, Industry and Innovation, Journal of Engineering Design, and the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation.