December 10, 2018
Co-workers waiting for flight in airport.

Business Travel Can Put Your Health at Risk

by Jeanine Barone  

It's tempting to think that people who travel regularly for work have glamorous jobs, with expense accounts paying for upgraded plane tickets, snazzy hotels, fancy meals, and after-work cocktails. But business travel is often budget travel these days, and even when money is no object, frequent travel can endanger your health. Long hours sitting in cars, planes, and conference rooms and poor eating habits on the road, along with work and travel stress, may largely be to blame.

In a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2011, researchers from Columbia University examined records of more than 13,000 people who had undergone routine physical exams as part of corporate wellness programs. They found that those who traveled most often (away from home more than 20 nights a month, on average) fared worst health-wise compared to those who traveled less. For instance, they were most likely to be obese and to rate their health as only fair or poor. Interestingly, people who traveled moderately (one to six nights away a month) were healthiest overall, compared to the most frequent travelers as well as non-travelers. The authors suggested that non-travelers were not the healthiest group probably because they included some people who had health conditions that prohibited them traveling.

In 2017, another study with the same lead author and published in the same journal also looked at the health records of thousands of members of corporate wellness programs to assess the psychological and behavioral effects of frequent travel. It found that people who traveled for work more than 20 days and nights a month were most likely to smoke, have trouble sleeping, be sedentary, drink alcohol excessively, and suffer from anxiety or depression.

In 2015, a review paper titled "A Darker Side of Hypermobility," published in Environment and Planning, examined health issues involved in frequent travel. In particular, the authors noted how jet lag, especially across numerous time zones, can have serious adverse physiological and psychological effects that can persist several days after coming home.

Special stresses of business travel

Travel can be full of frustrations and stress, starting with planning, organizing, and packing for the trip. Then come the inevitable transportation chaos and delays, along with worries about performance at business meetings and social events and even about personal safety while traveling. And frequent travel can be lonely and can take a toll on person relationships at home, even if you can stay connected with friends and family via your smartphone.

Some basic survival tips for business travel

At the airport:

  • Walk or take the stairs rather than using moving walkways, escalators, or elevators, when possible. Think of your suitcase or briefcase as a free weight.
  • If you have an extended layover at an airport in the U.S. or Canada, airportgyms.com provides the location of onsite fitness facilities.
  • Instead of resorting to high-calorie, sodium-laden airline food, bring along healthy snacks that include unsalted nuts (such as almonds or pistachios), a small container of hummus, low-fat string cheese, high-fiber crackers, fresh fruit (or freeze-dried fruit slices), baby carrots, and cherry tomatoes. Do this for car or train trips as well.

At hotels:

  • Make use of your hotel's exercise facilities. If it doesn't have any, ask about local health clubs; if you like to swim, ask about a facility with a pool. Fitforbusiness.com allows you to search for hotels with fitness facilities.
  • Bring along elastic bands that you can use for strength-training in your hotel room and, if you like using one, a jump rope for a cardio workout (though it might be best to do this in a park or gym). Don't forget basic calisthenics like crunches and push-ups and stretching routines.
  • Ask the hotel concierge to recommend nearby walking or jogging trails or routes-and for a map, if one is available.

At restaurants:

  • It's possible to get healthier options at nearly every restaurant. If your only choices are fast food, don't upsize: Pick a small burger and small order of fries, for example. Or opt for a grilled chicken or fish sandwich. Skip the cheese and fatty toppings. Skip sugary drinks, since liquid calories add up fast.
  • To avoid overeating at buffets, don't overload your plate, and don't go back for seconds. And steer clear of fried foods, as well as dishes laden with cream or cheese. Limit deserts or at least choose healthy ones like fresh fruit.
  • If you will attend a big business dinner, plan to eat a light breakfast and lunch. Make a salad and vegetables fill at least three-quarters of your plate.
  • To moderate alcohol consumption when socializing with colleagues or clients, opt for wine spritzers, non-alcoholic beer, or other low- or non-alcohol choices at least part of the time.

Also see Traveler's Diarrhea: Causes and Treatments and Road Safety, Here and Abroad.