Monday, June 30, 2008

How to protect your low back/sanity when stuffed into a coach seat

Is it just me, or is travel becoming more undignified these days? Sky-high prices, mile-long lines, practically disrobing to pass through security, only to be stuffed, sardine-like, into tiny little seats for hours on end. Your surly attendant offers you a gastronomical Sophie's choice - gelatinous chicken, or fish pie? FISH. PIE. Two words never meant to be uttered together.

These days I fly on points, and a wing and a prayer. Yet I some how still ending up paying exorbitant fees in addition to surrendering all my points, and pray not just to arrive alive, but to be seated next to someone compact, quiet and... how does one say this delicately? Hygienic.

Travel is risky, people... you've got to look out for yourself and play the game right. But fear not, itinerant patients and friends, I've been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale and pass on the tips to you, so that I can write off my flight expenses.

First, choose your seats wisely. How? Aah... Truthfully, I am reluctant to share this secret, lest we are on the same flight and you score the better seat at my expense. But as a doctor I am obliged to help... so let this this be a testament to just how much I care. I use a site called 'seat guru' to look up the best seats - each is rated for comfort, proximity to the lavatories, leg room etc. I log on early and select strategically - in this case I chose a lovely second row coach seat with no seat in front of me. Now, I'm not a tall person by nature, but the extra room made all the difference. I could visit the facilities without disrupting my neighbours, I did not have the displeasure of a seat in front of me resting in my lap for 6 hours, and I was able to stretch as needed, see below. On the return flight I was less fortunate, crammed in a regular aisle seat with the common folk, having walked past empty first class pods that taunted me, making me wish I was really, really rich, or a pea.

B) Stretching is important to prevent stiffness from settling in, as well as to prevent deep vein thombosis (DVT - things are always much more ominous when known by an abbreviation). The dangers of DVT (blood clots developing usually in the legs) have been documented, and although this is more prevalent in certain populations, for example the elderly, people with blood clotting disorders or those who have had recent surgery, a few simple exercises can help reduce the risk. The important thing is to keep the blood moving - get up and walk around periodically, and flex and contract the calf muscles to pump the blood up from the lower legs. Just please, when doing so, try to avoid kicking the seat in front of you, especially when I'm in front of you. Yeah, I'm talking to you, 49C.

My favorite glute/lower back stretch is the figure four position: an ankle on the opposite knee, bend forward at the hips without rounding the low back. To stretch the neck, simple range of motion exercises will do (ear side to side, look over each shoulder, chin down, and then chin down to each side...), as well as shoulder shrugs. I suppose I'll have to upload some pictures. Give me some time, I'm still jet lagged. Check back here.

Or you could be like the contortionist I saw, doing the splits and what appeared to be a full yoga routine in the narrow space behind the last row of seats and the flight attendants' lounge (you know, the space with all the mysterious metal cabinets... where they prepare the fish pie!).

Finally, entertainment. This is the one area where airlines have improved dramatically. I suppose it is in keeping with the general decline of Americans' expectations and attention spans -"you can't just feed us crap, treat us poorly, cram us in and expect us to pay for for it... this is unaccept- hey, there's a TV screen 4 inches from my face! Sweet!" I don't generally watch much television, and I'm definitely dumber for having flown this trip, witness my viewing schedule:
  • I Am Legend (New York destroyed, featuring scary monster things. Actually loved this, was kept on the edge of my seat, made only possible by the extra leg room afforded to me)
  • p.s. I Love You (warning, if your emotions are running high for any reason, or if you are not a robot, you will cry. As in tears pouring down your face, sobbing hysterically, making people around you uneasy... please watch this film)
  • Cloverfield (New York destroyed, featuring scary monster things. I Am Legend without Will Smith)
  • The Savages (what the? I normally love Philip Seymour Hoffman, but this was booooring, I turned it off).
  • Then came TV, 'cause at this point I was too dumb to read... Arrested Development (Bob Loblaw... ha!), Flight of the Conchords (have you seen this yet? Brilliant!) and The Simpsons, an episode centered oddly enough around flying.
To reiterate, I don't watch much television any more, but I'm not so fancy that I can't appreciate a good Simpsons episode now and again. And I think Homer Simpson summed up the coach experience perfectly: when asked if there was any difference between flying in a private plane (or in this case, those fancy pods up front) and coach, he exclaims "are you kidding? It's the difference between champagne and carbonated pee."

Next time, I want champagne.

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