Jet lag as a test of physical endurance

Tracy at the Great Wall of China on her big step day. Photo credit: John Hatch.

I’ve been in China for a week and I had some modest fitness goals while away: to do the hotel room workout my trainer gave me twice, to get enough sleep, and to walk when practical. I didn’t have any grand plans of using the hotel gym or trying to keep up with my running. I thought that if I set a low bar I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Turns out the bar wasn’t low enough. I haven’t done the hotel room workout once even (I could do it now because I’m awake and have been since 4 am). I haven’t slept well since arriving, getting at most 5-6 hours of intermittent sleep. I have walked when practical, including a big day on Sunday that included the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Judging by someone else’s step tracker that day was good for at least 25000 steps. But there has also been a lot of sitting in cars and meeting rooms.

And yet I feel physically taxed at the moment. The long days of meetings with Chinese partner institutions–which have all been productive and exciting–and totally reversed time zones (the part of China I’m in is 13 hours ahead of my usual Eastern Time Zone) turn out to be a brutal combo.

Most mornings we have been meeting for breakfast around or before 7, and I’ve been awake already mostly before 4 without being able to get back to sleep. We have usually had morning and afternoon meetings. I’ve had more coffee than I usually do.

And by the time I get back to my hotel room for the night there has been no way I could possibly consider working out.

I consider that totally reasonable. Though I do like to keep working out when I travel, on these short trips across the world where there isn’t even time to adjust before heading back home, the physical endurance required to get the day’s work done is enough of a workout for me.

When I’m sleep deprived it makes matters worse. I’m told there are things that can make it easier. Staying hydrated. Melatonin. Using drugs for sleeping (not an option for me). So far I haven’t found anything that makes it easier for me. And yet I love traveling. I think I just need to go on longer trips with more gentle schedules!

Most of all, I’m not going to be too hard on myself for not making the already low bar I set. It’s been a great trip and I’ll get back on track when I get home, which is tonight.

What’s your best advice for managing jet lag across many time zones? Do you keep to a workout schedule or find, like me, that the day’s events are challenging enough?

3 thoughts on “Jet lag as a test of physical endurance

  1. I know I’m not in the position to say much here since jet lag usually doesn’t bother me much. I can always sleep. But I do find exercise helps with sleep. We tend to think if we’re tired and jet lagged we should cut out exercise but if you usually exercise that’s one more big change. Generally I sleep better, for longer chunks, if I’m physically as well as mentally tired. So the room exercises help with sleep. They don’t make me more tired. But that’s me. YMMV.

  2. Traveling that far in the northern hemisphere this time of year makes jet lag tougher because there’s so little light, you don’t get any help adjusting (even a little would help). I try to get outside and walk a bit, mainly to expose myself to light at the new place. I agree that it’s really hard to do exercise when everything else’s out of whack. I try to do a little (I mean 5–10 mins) yoga in my room, just to stretch out my body after all that sitting, which helps.

  3. I find the jet lag knocks me out much more than it did when I was young, but the exercise really helps me manage it. Two weeks ago I went to Geneva for meetings and took an extra day to sightsee in another city before getting down to business. I walked for hours and felt fantastic, even on the days when I just walked to and from the meeting site and out for dinner in the evenings. The next stage of my trip was to Afghanistan, where I was considerably more restricted. I did make it to the gym a couple of mornings, but it wasn’t enough. I can’t exercise at night because it just gets me energized. Some stretching in my room might have helped and I wish I had thought of it at the time.

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