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Shocker: Business Travel is Bad For Your Health

It’s no secret that corporate travel ain’t what it used to be.

From the ever-shrinking seats to the increasing number of cancellations and delays, airline travel is not the glamorous adventure the movies of our youth made it out to be, and too many miles away from home and family are, as it turns out, actually bad for you.

A recent study reported in the Harvard Business Review found a “strong correlation” between the frequency of business travel and a range of health risks:

…those who spent 14 or more nights away from home per month had significantly higher body mass index scores and were significantly more likely to report the following: poor self-rated health; clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence; no physical activity or exercise; smoking; and trouble sleeping. The odds of being obese were 92% higher for those who traveled 21 or more nights per month compared to those who traveled only one to six nights per month, and this ultra-traveling group also had higher diastolic blood pressure and lower high density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol).

Gosh, that sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

There are a variety of reasons for this cluster of adverse health risks, aside from the obvious stress of packing a bag and being treated like a steer en route to slaughter by the TSA and the airline. One study found that international business travel “was associated with higher alcohol consumption, lower confidence in keeping up with the pace of work, and lower perceived flexibility in fulfilling commitments.”

Having just returned from a nine-day trip to Brazil, I can identify with those issues. Many of us who travel regularly for business joke with one another about the amount of work that goes into preparing to be away from the office, managing work that must be done while we’re away from the office, and then catching up on everything that didn’t get done while being away from the office. (As a side note, these same issues are part of the reason why so many busy professionals leave half their vacation on the table each year.)

Losing Weight is HardAmong the issues cited in the HBR article are the challenges of eating away from home, the increased consumption of alcohol and the difficulty of maintaining an exercise regimen out on the road. I’ll add that these issues tend to become interrelated for many weary road warriors: you have a few drinks at a reception or dinner, the lowered inhibitions make it more likely that you want a snack (or two) on the way back to your hotel room, and your brilliant plans of hitting the gym go by the wayside either due to fatigue or disappearing ambition.

One other observation I’ll add as an anecdote supporting the data: travel is the enemy of consistency. As I’ve written previously, part of the “magic” of diet trends like low-carb or paleo is the nutritional brilliance of consistency. Those of us who have struggled with our weight can attest that success comes from adopting a plan and following it consistently. That isn’t overly difficult when you eat most of your meals from home, or do weekly meal prep and take lunches with you to work. This is also true of exercise; it isn’t overly difficult to establish a routine at home or at your gym of choice, but it becomes more difficult to stick to that routine in an unfamiliar setting with a different set of demands on your time and attention.

My personal experience: a few years ago, I started training as what I think of as “recreational powerlifting.” I built a nice mini-gym in our home, found a training program that made sense to my understanding of strength programming and fit my goals and resources, and set to work. For nine months, I followed a consistent training schedule, three days a week, and held to the nutrition plan I adopted to support my training. Then I hit the “busy season” of travel in my profession, and my best-laid plans went straight to hell.

Deadlifting is cheaper than therapy...I fell off the wagon, so to speak, and stayed off for two or three months. Then, I got back in the habit, and stuck with it for another nine months, and the cycle repeated. Each time I fell off the wagon, it got harder to get back on schedule, and my nutrition plan suffered as well (for whatever reason, my nutritional adherence is linked to adherence to my training plan). Author Gretchen Rubin has written quite a bit about the importance of habits, and I think her observations have relevance here: travel is a disrupter of habits.

So what is the answer? I’m not overly worried about travel being the death of me – I’ve been on 30 airplanes already this year, but spend nowhere remotely close to the 21 nights on the road per month described as the high-risk group in the study – but still, managing the health risks of travel is more than a passing fancy.

Ultimately the authors suggest that travelers and their employers have to do a good job first off of deciding if travel is really necessary, or if a given task or transaction can be accomplished via modern digital means such as video chat or teleconference: “If you travel for work regularly, it’s worth pausing to examine whether you actually need to be on the road frequently — and if you do, how you can mitigate the effects of stress and be mindful about your dietary choices.”

That last bit, about making good choices, is really the most important thing after all. Well, I have a trip tomorrow, so I guess I’d better go pack.

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