You’ve just gotten off your flight across the pond. You grab your bags and race off the plane with adrenaline and excitement in tow, ready for a new adventure in a new city. You grab your taxi to the hotel and think to yourself, Maybe I should nap first. The next thing you know you’re waking up eight hours later in the middle of the night and the following few days are filled with fatigue, stomach problems, and just general haziness.
Jet lag has entered the stage.
Leading experts in the travel and health fields define jet lag as “the desynchronisation between the internal human circadian system and the time at the new destination.” As a result, many of our psychological, physiological, and behavioral patterns fall out of whack with the local time.
“The body has general rhythms that underlie our physiology and dictate things like hormones, metabolism, etc,” says Amy Bender, PhD, director of clinical sleep science at Cerebra and an adjunct assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “The circadian rhythm is like the master clock which either controls or influences those body rhythms.”
Traveling across time zones creates a shift in these rhythms, particularly when we lose or gain three or more hours.
“When the internal master clock isn’t aligned with the external clock of your destination, it creates a mismatch of all your bodily rhythms,” explains Dr. Bender. “That’s what lies at the heart of jet lag.”
Tim DiFrancesco, DPT, owner of TD Athletes Edge in Boston, says when he was traveling with the Los Angeles Lakers as the team’s head of strength and conditioning, he often felt like a shaken snow globe. “With each time zone we crossed or changed, it was like shaking that snowglobe up, down, and all around,” he says. “This was by far the toughest part of the job for me. One to two times per season, I would wake up in a hotel room and have to grasp for a piece of the hotel stationary on the nightstand to confirm what hotel and city I was in.”
Luckily, there are a few proven ways to deal with jet lag, like setting yourself up ahead of your trip by slowly tweaking your bedtime over the course of a few days, avoiding booze, and keeping any naps to 20 minutes.
But what about working out—could it also help fight off the effects of jet lag? Multiple studies and experts have looked into the question, and the answer is pointing towards a yes. This is most likely due to the well-known impacts of exercise as a natural stimulant to boost energy levels and an effective self-regulating technique.
To make the most of any sweat sessions on the road, it’s helpful to use a few targeted strategies.
Time your workout right for the biggest benefits
In a study published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers examined if exercise results in re-shifting effects on circadian rhythms by taking nearly 100 subjects through three consecutive days of moderate treadmill exercise at—and this is the key that makes this research unique—one of eight times of the day or night.
They found that exercising, in general, shifted circadian rhythms but were further able to pinpoint when it was most effective. Exercising at 7 am and between 1 and 4 pm local time resulted in the greatest phase advances (meaning bedtime and wake-up time move earlier in the day). Meanwhile, exercising between 7 and 10 pm resulted in the greatest phase delays (meaning bedtime and wake-up time move later in the day). The former would be ideal when traveling west to east (to counter the advance in time) and the latter when east to west (to counter the subtraction in time).
The effects of the exercise at these times were almost similar to those achieved by an hour of bright light exposure, which is considered to be one of the most effective ways to regulate circadian rhythms due to the connection between light and sleep regulation systems.
Speaking of which: What about exercising in bright natural light? There’s limited evidence showing it may further help regulate sleep quality and hormonal responses, but more research is needed.
Does the intensity make a difference?
When you’re traveling, you’re already dealing with multiple stressors. Any exercise you’re doing shouldn’t add more, says Andrew Barr, DPT, owner of Quantum Performance, who works with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and has become an expert in alleviating jet lag and how travel fatigue potentially impacts injury risk and performance.
“You want to scale back the intensity of the exercise to a low or moderate because you want to limit additional stressors,” he says. Think: A brisk walk, gentle yoga session, or maybe a bike ride around the streets where you’re visiting. “If you’ll be staying for an extended period of time at the new destination, then you can ramp up to the higher intensity as you acclimate to the changes.”
If you’re only taking a short trip, however, consider whether going to the trouble of adjusting is even worth it. “Generally, if you’re staying for less than three days, I wouldn’t recommend trying to adapt at all because you’ll just have to readapt when you leave, so it becomes double the work!” says Dr. Barr.
But if you do want your body to get used to the local time, give these strategies a try on your next trip. Hopefully instead of waking up in a confused daze in the middle of the night, you’ll have a peaceful, synchronized morning, ready for whatever adventure awaits you.
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