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updated 7/5/2010 11:34:15 AM ET 2010-07-05T15:34:15

One of the perks of getting older is that you finally have more time to see the world. But while a weeklong vacation is rejuvenating, it can also take a toll on your body. "Changing your routine ramps up levels of stress hormones, which can wreak havoc on your immune system and disrupt your sleep," says Steven Lamm, MD, a clinical assistant professor at New York University. "There's a price you pay for travel." The good news: With careful planning you can avoid the most common health pitfalls travelers face.

Prevent back pain
Before you go: Ship your luggage to your destination in advance. Save time — and your spine — by going to www.luggagefree.com and scheduling a pickup. Your bags can be delivered within 24 hours in the United States. Added perk: On most trips you can include your liquid toiletries without worrying about them being confiscated from your carry-on. (If you send your stuff a few days ahead, the rate will be less expensive — as low as $1.65 per pound for domestic shipping.)

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En route: Get out of your seat every hour to stretch your legs and walk around the cabin, suggests Arya Nick Shamie, MD, assistant professor of spine surgery at UCLA. Angle overhead vents away from you: Cool air can stiffen your neck and shoulder muscles, says Steven Conway, DC, spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association.

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On arrival: If you end up with a too-soft hotel bed, ask if someone can slide a board under the mattress for more support, says Shamie. "Hotels may have orthopedic pillows for people who ask for them," he adds.

Soothe your stomach
Before you go: Take the right probiotics — healthy bacteria found in food or supplements — which may help reduce gas, bloating, and diarrhea. A study in the British Medical Journal found that people taking certain probiotics had fewer diarrhea symptoms after 3 days than those who didn't take them. Get your dose in pill form, Lamm suggests. "One capsule of the brand Culturelle has about 10 times more probiotics than fortified foods." Start popping supplements a few days before your trip.

En route: Bring CharcoCaps, activated charcoal tablets that you can swallow before takeoff to help absorb gas, suggests gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, MD. All that gum chewing and candy sucking you do to relieve pressure in your ears may cause "jet bloat," and the higher the altitude, the more the gas in your body expands.

On arrival: Drink plenty of water and consume about 25 g of fiber daily to keep things running smoothly. Experts say that the fiber found in wheat and oat brans is better at relieving constipation than fiber from fruits and veggies.

Find more fiber-rich foods with this handy guide.

Beat jet lag
Before you go: Pack melatonin supplements. Your body produces melatonin on its own, but if you're traveling, your internal clock may get thrown off. In a 2006 study from the journal Sleep, researchers found that people who took as little as 0.3 mg of melatonin got about a half hour more snooze time.

En route: Reset your watch to the destination's time as soon as you board the plane, says Lamm — and if you're scheduled to arrive in the morning, try to sleep during the flight. If necessary, talk with your doctor about a prescription sleep aid, such as Ambien.

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On arrival: Traveling east is harder on the body, but it helps to get out in the sun in the morning. Bright light perks you up and allows your body to adjust to the new schedule, says Lamm.

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Fend off weight gain
Before you go: Skip flats or sandals — lack of arch support can lead to heel pain and keep you sidelined. Instead, bring shoes with thick, well-cushioned soles. Visit the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine's Website for a list of recommended brands.

En route: Drink a glass of water before you stop at the food court or accept the free cookies on the plane, says Joanne Lichten, PhD, RD, author of "How to Stay Healthy & Fit on the Road." Because you're prone to dehydration when traveling, your craving may pass once you quench your thirst.

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On arrival: Get acquainted with a city by seeing it on foot. At certain Hilton hotels, you can request a treadmill in your room. (Visit inroomfitness.com to find participating locations.) And at some Westin hotels, Pilates videos, dumbbells, and core-training equipment are available for room workouts.

Fight off new germs
Before you go: "Everyone over age 50 should get the flu vaccine," says David Goldberg, MD, editor in chief of MDtravelhealth.com in Scarsdale, NY. "And it's an especially good idea for travelers." To see if there's a flu outbreak where you're headed, visit weather.com and click on Healthy Living.

En route: Avoid coffee and sip some warm green or black tea with lemon, recommends Murray Grossan, MD, an ear, nose, and throat doctor in Los Angeles. It's especially high in helpful antioxidants. Plus, it keeps you hydrated: A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that dry airplane air increases your risk of getting a case of the sniffles. A thin layer of mucus in your nose and throat normally flushes out bacteria and viruses, but when air is dry, this lining gets parched, leaving you vulnerable to infection. Nasal sprays and gels, such as Breathe.ease XL Nasal Moisturizing Gel, can also help.

On arrival: Wash your hands frequently. Recently, researchers from the University of Virginia Health System found that hotel rooms were teeming with germs. It's hard to avoid cold viruses on remote controls and light switches — so send them down the drain before they ruin your good time.

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Video: Eating well on the road

  1. Transcript of: Eating well on the road

    AMY ROBACH, co-host: Thirty-two million Americans plan to hit the road or hop on an airplane this summer, but drive-throughs and airports can often be full of tempting fast food snacks. Here to help steer us in a healthier direction when taking a trip is Cynthia Sass , a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Ultimate Diet Log." Cynthia , good morning.

    Ms. CYNTHIA SASS (Registered Nutritionist): Good morning.

    ROBACH: So when you travel -- and we travel a lot for the job. In fact, I can just remember, oh, last week down Route 66 , where I think I had like a double cheeseburger, a milkshake, french fries , margaritas, chips and salsa. See, they even have video.

    Ms. SASS: Oh, boy.

    ROBACH: I'm eating, I'm eating, I'm eating. Why is it so difficult to be healthy when you're on the road?

    Ms. SASS: Well, I think you're...

    ROBACH: OK, enough of that.

    Ms. SASS: ...out of your normal routine. It's also what I call Vegas syndrome, you know, like you do buy and eat things you wouldn't in your normal everyday life , but unfortunately the weight you gain in Vegas or wherever you go on vacation doesn't stay there, right? It comes with you. So that's the problem.

    ROBACH: That's good. All right, let's start with fast food .

    Ms. SASS: Yes.

    ROBACH: You're in the airport, you're at a drive through, are there options that you can look at? And what are some of the biggest mistakes we make?

    Ms. SASS: Let's talk about the pitfalls, first.

    ROBACH: OK.

    Ms. SASS: OK. First of all, that large cola.

    ROBACH: Yeah.

    Ms. SASS: It may be refreshing, but that contains the equivalent of 21 teaspoons of sugar, 300 calories . Now, that's the amount in seven frozen popsicles. When you put it in perspective, it's kind of crazy.

    ROBACH: So go for the bottle of water.

    Ms. SASS: Definitely.

    ROBACH: All right.

    Ms. SASS: And then those large fries, tack on 500 calories to your meal.

    ROBACH: Whew .

    Ms. SASS: Which is a lot of excess considering that driving a car burns about 140 calories an hour.

    ROBACH: OK.

    Ms. SASS: Sitting on an airplane, a lot less.

    ROBACH: All right. So what are some better options?

    Ms. SASS: OK. So if you're stuck with fast food , I have a three-step approach. Number one, ditch the deep fryer. Nothing fried.

    ROBACH: OK.

    Ms. SASS: Number two, stick with a poultry or vegetarian option. And number three, customize your order. So, for example, we have two chicken soft tacos here, or it could be a bean burrito. Get rid of the cheese and sour cream, add extra veggies. You have 350 calories , which is one-third the amount in a quarter pound cheeseburger with fries.

    ROBACH: OK.

    Ms. SASS: And you save 73 grams of saturated fat.

    ROBACH: I've done this, the carrots and the hummus, I've definitely seen that.

    Ms. SASS: Yeah, you know what's great? Because wherever there's fast food , there's a grocery store.

    ROBACH: Right.

    Ms. SASS: So go there and load up on all these things, rotisserie chicken, fresh fruit , even whole grain crackers. Just bring them in the car with you.

    ROBACH: OK. All right. Let's move on to the vending machines, the airport snack stand; obviously these are the culprits.

    Ms. SASS: Yes. The pretzels. A lot of people think they're a healthier alternative to chips, but really, in my opinion, they're just white bread in a bag, OK?

    ROBACH: And lots of salt.

    Ms. SASS: They're loaded with sodium, they're a lot more processed. These are a nutritionist's nightmare.

    ROBACH: Yeah.

    Ms. SASS: They'll cost you about three to 400 calories a pop. You'd have to swim in your pool when you get to your hotel for 45 minutes to burn off one of these.

    ROBACH: Yikes.

    Ms. SASS: And they're just loaded with all kinds of preservatives and all that. So what I say is go for perishable. You shouldn't buy anything that has a longer shelf life than, say, a dog's life span , right?

    ROBACH: OK.

    Ms. SASS: So you want to go for things that are perishable like, you know, a lot of convenience stores and gas stations now have fresh fruit . Nuts are a staple at all of these.

    ROBACH: Right.

    Ms. SASS: They're around one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Even if they have sodium, it's OK because on average they have like 115 milligrams.

    ROBACH: Lots of protein, too.

    Ms. SASS: Fiber, minerals all that good stuff.

    ROBACH: Here's another big one. You're at the hotel and they offer that free breakfast buffet.

    Ms. SASS: Yes.

    ROBACH: And again, it's somehow calories don't count.

    Ms. SASS: Right.

    ROBACH: Oh, back for seconds and thirds. So obviously you want to stay away from the pancakes and the bagels, I'm guessing?

    Ms. SASS: The pancakes with syrup. The bagels, 20 years ago, they used to be three inches and about the size of a hockey puck.

    ROBACH: Right.

    Ms. SASS: They've ballooned to six inches.

    ROBACH: Yeah.

    Ms. SASS: This is about 550 calories here.

    ROBACH: Wow.

    Ms. SASS: And it scores an F for nutritional value. So stick with the breakfast of champions, good old cereal. It could be hot oatmeal or cold whole grain cereal with fruit. You know, fewer than 10 percent of Americans get the recommended whole grain servings a day, three a day, and 75 percent of us don't get the recommended two servings of fruit. So this is a great way to fill the gap.

    ROBACH: OK.

    Ms. SASS: And it's really all about energy, not just calories and weight gain, but really enjoying your vacation.

    ROBACH: All right. Cynthia Sass , thanks so much. Good tips.

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