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ACSM is fortunate to be the go-to source on sports medicine and exercise science for several national and international media outlets. You can find some of our most recent coverage below, or you can view archived articles.  

Jet Lag - Trends and Coping Strategies

by User Not Found | Aug 01, 2011
Restoring disrupted body rhythms

SEATTLE – Frequent air travelers, as well as people who fly only occasionally, are often inconvenienced by the effects of jet lag, according to research presented today at the American College of Sports Medicine’s 56th Annual Meeting in Seattle. Christopher Berger, Ph.D., Chair of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Task Force on Healthy Air Travel, “Exercise is Medicine™ On the Fly,” explains that jet lag, medically called desynchronosis, is the physiological response to alterations to circadian rhythms.

For humans, a circadian rhythm is the slightly longer than 24-hour cycle of the body’s biochemical and physiological processes.  Berger, a kinesiology and health promotion professor, notes that when a person’s circadian rhythm is disrupted they might feel fatigue, have digestive upsets and headaches, or experience a decline in their ability to concentrate.

“Jet lag happens when you rapidly cross time zones and is a relatively new phenomenon for humans,” said Berger, who presented on the topic with Ben Edwards, Ph.D. “For every time zone you cross it takes about a day for your body to recover. It is harder on your body to go from west to east, because you lose time, and thus often lose sleep.  For people who bounce through several different time zones in a short span of time, the effects of jet lag can be cumulative.  An example of this type of traveler might be a business person who flies from Chicago to New York City on Monday for a one-day meeting, then on to Los Angeles for another meeting, then returns to Chicago on Thursday or Friday of the same week.”

He explained that jet stress, the result of the stressful effects of travel, is different from jet lag.  Jet stress can be the result of interruptions in eating patterns; poor eating habits while traveling; sitting in a cramped seat for a long time; dehydration; and irritation from things such as flight delays, crowds, and noise.

But are jet lag and jet stress conditions to be overly concerned about?

“It depends on a person’s expectations of personal performance when they arrive at their travel destination,” said Berger. For example, if a person goes from New York City to London on business, they might have difficulty thinking and dealing with technical information immediately.  On the other hand, if a person makes that same trip for pleasure they might not be as concerned about their mental acuity and simply sleep off effects.”

Edwards noted that it takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed. So, for example a transcontinental flight spanning 10 time zones would require about 10 days of recovery.

The effects of these conditions could be a consideration for athletic performance.

“Athletes are not terribly impacted by jet lag if have time to acclimatize themselves to time zones,” said Berger. “Although coaches do need to keep in mind those things that require mental concentration might be a little more affected.”

Edwards recommends that athletes arrive in plenty of time before a competitive event to allow the body’s internal clock to adjust to a new time zone. He says athletes should reduce the intensity and duration of training for the few first days after arriving in a new time zone.

Berger outlined a number of strategies to help alleviate the affects of jet lag and jet stress.

For long west to east flights, try to sleep on the plane to account for lost sleep. Berger also tends to agree with the conventional wisdom of setting your watch to local time as soon as you board the plane.

"One universal thing is to avoid alcohol while traveling,” said Berger. “It is dehydrating, acts as a depressant, and can worsen your jet lag symptoms.” Walking around during a flight and performing light stretching are also good strategies to follow.

He notes that the ACSM Task Force on Healthy Air Travel, known as “Exercise is MedicineTM  On the Fly,” suggests staying well-hydrated by drinking water, non-carbonated soft drinks, fruit drinks, and sports drinks. A high-carbohydrate diet while traveling might also be helpful, since carbohydrate-rich foods can also be hydrating. One of Berger’s travel adages is, “Eat so you don’t get hungry. Drink so you don’t get thirsty. When you get hungry or thirsty you get cranky. That leads to stress.”

To cope with the aggravations associated with modern air travel, Berger suggests that travelers stay organized and pack light.

“You see some people with a 45- or 50-pound suitcase. They drag it around and have to try to lift it into an overhead luggage bin. Many people are not fit enough to perform this type of activity, they can get frustrated, and can get injured when they are in a rush. Something frequent travelers need to consider is that air travel is an activity of daily living for them, and it requires physical strength. If a person is out of shape, they might consider meeting with a fitness professional to help them get into better condition, and thus help alleviate some travel stress.”

If you must be awake upon arrival, get into a bright (well-lit) environment – preferably natural light. Engage in social interaction. If you choose to drink caffeinated beverages, be aware of how your body responds. Caffeine may be helpful, but if your body needs sleep it is going to need rest, for which caffeine can be counterproductive. If you cannot get a full night of sleep, at least take a nap. Even a 15- to 20-minute power nap can benefit the brain.

If a person finds their sleep pattern is disrupted, physical activity might help. Berger suggests there is a general consensus among experts that a workout can help with many of the symptoms that jet lag evokes, so travelers should plan time into their schedule for physical activity.

“Exercise is Medicine on the Fly,” originally formed in 2005, is currently working on initiatives to help educate travelers about the importance of exercise on proper nutrition. One initiative is working with airports to facilitate walking venues in concourses. Berger used the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport as an example.

“DFW has a modern layout, and it works well for walking,” he said. “Because art exhibits throughout the concourses are uniformly spaced, interested walkers could grab maps and get some exercise while learning more about art. Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport already has concourse distances marked and walking can be a great substitute for the inter-terminal train.”

The task force is working with airports and frequent flyer clubs to develop maps that can be distributed by the clubs.

“We want to work collaboratively with the airports and airlines to let passengers know that airport walking can be a great way to improve health and eliminate some travel-related stress,” said Berger.

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The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world.  More than 35,000 international, national, and regional members and certified professionals are dedicated to advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine.

The conclusions outlined in this news release are those of the researchers only, and should not be construed as an official statement of the American College of Sports Medicine.

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