June 2011

Summer Travel
Plan Ahead To Stay Healthy

Cartoon of a family traveling in a car loaded with luggage.

Maybe you’re counting down the days until your summer vacation. Or just got word your next business meeting will be in Boise or Bangkok. You can boost your chances of having a healthy and happy trip if you do a little prep work before you leave home.

Travel can be great for your health. Vacations can help you relax and reduce stress. Having fun and getting some exercise—like hiking or swimming—can benefit your heart and mind. But research has shown that your ability to successfully engage in healthy behaviors may decline more than you think once you’re away from your daily routine. Planning ahead can help you make smart choices and avoid pitfalls while traveling.

“The combination of the stress and excitement of travel and being in a new place and out of routine makes us more vulnerable to unhealthy behavior and more likely to take risks,” explains Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatrist and behavioral scientist at Emory University. “People who travel healthy make strong decisions about what they will and will not do, and they plan for it.”

Before you travel, think about your personal, day-to-day challenges and plan for how to manage them on your trip. Think in advance about how to make healthy food choices, get enough physical activity or deal with feelings of loneliness. If you’re concerned about your alcohol consumption, plan for healthy alternatives to the hotel bar at the end of the day. If you have trouble sleeping, think about bringing an item from home to make you feel more comfortable.

Getting enough sleep can be critical to having a safe trip, says Dr. Michael Twery, director of NIH’s National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. But sleep is often neglected during travel. “We want to live every day to the fullest. If we had a choice, many would prefer never to sleep, and we often run until exhaustion,” Twery says. “It’s especially important before and during travel to consciously schedule time to sleep.”

Too little sleep leads to poor concentration and judgment. Problems may seem more serious. You may have trouble dealing with common travel situations and changing circumstances, like a delayed flight, traffic jam or choosing safe and healthy meals. Being well rested will help you plan and carry out healthy behaviors while on the road, where there are distractions, temptations and the excuse and opportunity to indulge. For families with kids, Twery adds, “getting enough sleep helps to optimize children’s behavior and their ability to meet the challenges of travel.”

Jet lag is another sleep concern for travelers crossing multiple time zones. Jet lag is often more severe for eastbound travelers, because their days are shortened and it’s harder for the body to adapt to a shorter day than a longer one. Plan to give yourself some time so your body adjusts to the new time zone, if you can. It’s also a good idea to avoid scheduling meetings or activities that require critical decision-making on your first day of arrival.

If you’ll be driving, lack of sleep puts you at greater risk for drowsy driving and car crashes. “It’s common for travelers to push themselves when driving, either by being in the car at times they should be asleep or not taking enough breaks along the way,” explains Twery. Lack of sleep can slow your reaction to a braking car ahead, a sharp curve or other road hazards.

Research shows that car, bike and pedestrian collisions can pose a serious danger to travelers—maybe even more than you realize. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of injury-related death among Americans traveling abroad. Lack of sleep and alcohol use often contribute to these accidents. “There really is a tendency for travelers to get less than adequate sleep and to drink more on vacation than at home,” says Dr. Stephen Whitehead, a vaccine and international health researcher at NIH.

Learning about your destination and packing smart is one more way to help you stay healthy when you travel. Things like eating at a local restaurant, swimming in a lake, changes in altitude or exposure to new germs and insects can make you sick if you don’t plan ahead. “Travelers run into trouble when they’re not prepared,” Whitehead says. “Know what you need before you go.”

If you’re travelling internationally, you may need certain shots or medicines. Many local or county health departments can provide pre-travel advice about what you’ll need to do. Some even run their own travel clinics, which provide vaccines and other health services for travelers. Visit http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/travel-clinics.htm to learn more.

If you’re visiting a country with unsafe drinking water, it’s important to consider things like how your vegetables were rinsed or how you’ll brush your teeth. “When you travel, you really have to think about what you put in your mouth and consider that everything could be contaminated,” says Dr. Linda Mansfield, a microbe researcher at Michigan State University.

Mansfield encourages you to try to learn more about restaurant quality. Poor hygiene in local restaurants may be the largest risk factor for travelers’ diarrhea, which affects up to 50% of international travelers. Make sure the food is freshly cooked and hot, and that utensils are clean. You might try to avoid some of the most risky foods, like raw or undercooked meat and seafood and unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables.

“It’s a lot more fun not to be sick when you’re traveling,” Mansfield says. “Prevention really does work, but you have to be prepared.”

So plan ahead for the best trip possible. “It’s all about balance,” adds Raison. “Just be mindful and create a plan so you have fun, set limits and stay safe and healthy.”