How to stay healthy when you travel for work all the time



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published May 15, 2018 | 5 min read

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Millions of people travel for business each year. Many people perceive the ability to travel for work as a glamorous perk, but doing it too much can worsen your health.

People who travel for business often report more symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a study published this year in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Previous research shows links between extensive business travel and higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure.

There's growing evidence that frequent business travel is unhealthy. But what can you do if it's part of your job?

What makes business travel unhealthy?

There are many reasons, said Andrew Rundle, an author on the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study. Business travelers eat out a lot. Restaurant food tends to be less healthy than food prepared at home, with more calories, fat, salt and sugar.

People tend to give themselves "permission" to eat poorly when they travel, said Rundle, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Healthy. They'll order a steak with fries and a cocktail even if it wouldn't fit into their diet at home. It can also be difficult to stay active on the road.

Changing time zones can make it hard to sleep, Rundle said. Hectic travel schedules can cause stress and the feeling that you're not in control.

"You're at the mercy of all these other factors when you're on a business trip," Rundle said.

The health effects become clear with workers who travel two weeks or more each month. That accounts for only about 14% of the workforce, Rundle said, but this group comprises workers who are the public face of their companies, meeting clients, attending conferences and conducting training.

What exactly happens to your health?

Rundle and co-authors Tracey Revenson of the City University of New York and Michael Friedman of EHE International looked at the anonymized health records of 18,328 people who went through a 2015 health assessment as part of a corporate wellness work benefits program provided by EHE International. Those who traveled more frequently were more likely to smoke, have trouble sleeping and report anxiety and depression symptoms. Research Rundle conducted in 2011, also based on medical records, found those who traveled for business 20 or more days a month had, on average, a higher body mass index, higher cholesterol and higher blood pressure.

"There's this whole clustering of ill health effects," Rundle said.

How to stay healthy while traveling

Being aware of the health risks of traveling goes a long way, Rundle said. Employers can play a big role by making sure their workers' accommodations include gym access.

"You can't force somebody to go to the gym but you can make it easier for them to go to the gym," Rundle said.

Employers can also provide training on mental health and stress management for workers who travel a lot, Rundle said. Business travelers can use phone apps to track their diet and remind them to stay active. They should also remember not to treat every trip like a vacation.

"While you're traveling it's still real life," Rundle said. "Everything you do still counts toward your health and wellness."

Before founding Fittest Travel, a fitness magazine aimed at travelers, Christopher Castellano worked on Wall Street. He had a hectic schedule, sometimes flying into and out of cities on the same day.

"The schedule left very little time to even consider working out, not to mention the fact that I had very little energy by the end of the day," said Castellano, now editor-in-chief of Fittest Travel.

Now when he travels, Castellano wakes up 30 minutes to an hour earlier than usual to fit in a workout. While he lifts weights at home, sometimes he doesn't have access to them while traveling. Castellano's favorite form of training while traveling is body-weight exercises.

"You can do them literally anywhere with no equipment," Castellano said. He lists 30 body-weight workouts, most requiring no equipment, on his website.

You can work out right in your hotel room, doing pushups, situps, squats and burpees, Castellano said. You don't need to spend as much time as you might think.

"As long as I'm going hard for 20 minutes and keeping the intensity high and keeping that heart rate up, it's fine," Castellano said.

An intense early morning work out can also help you fall asleep at night, he said.

Eating healthy is another challenge. Food options at airports and at restaurants tend to be unhealthy. Castellano practices intermittent fasting, restricting his eating to an eight-hour period ending at 8 p.m. There's been little research on intermittent fasting, but the few studies that exist show there may be a health benefit.

Is staying healthy while traveling getting easier?

Gyms, yoga studios and walking tracks have started showing up in airports around the country as travelers clamor for ways to work out during layovers, Castellano said. Though as a fallback, you can always do a quick body weight workout in a quiet corner.

"You might get some strange looks in an airport," he said. "I definitely have before."

Rundle first began researching health and travel after trying to find a place to eat in an airport for his wife, who is vegan. Back then, in 2011, most information about health and travel related to avoiding violence and vaccinating against diseases while abroad. Nothing focused on chronic issues like high blood pressure.

But the business world is starting to pay attention to the link between travel and health, he said.

"I think you're starting to see movement," Rundle said. "The idea is getting a little bit of traction."

Do you travel more for pleasure than business? That doesn't mean you can't save money. Here are the travel fees you should never pay.

Image: DaniloAndjus