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10 Seated Exercises to Improve Circulation in Your Legs on a Flight

July 17 2023 5 min read

Flying can be an exciting experience, especially when you're headed to a sunny destination. However, it often entails prolonged periods of sitting, which can result in poor blood circulation, leading to discomfort and potentially more serious issues like blood clots. 

That's why we've put together 10 exercises to get your blood flowing on a flight, as well as some general tips to improve circulation, from compression socks to staying hydrated. 

What causes leg discomfort on a plane?

If you've ever noticed your legs becoming numb or aching on a flight, it could be down to a number of reasons. Sitting for a long time in cramped spaces leads to reduced blood circulation, causing muscles to become stiff and achy. And let's not forget about the tiny amount of legroom that makes it impossible to stretch or find a comfy position. The cabin's air pressure and humidity levels don't help either and can contribute to fluid retention and swelling in the legs and ankles. 

According to Healthline, if you already have some health issues or are prone to blood clots like deep vein thrombosis (DVT), long-haul flights can make things even worse. 

Symptoms you may be experiencing if you have poor circulation on a flight include:

  • Leg pain and aching — You may experience a dull, throbbing, or sharp pain in your legs during or after the flight.
  • Swelling and oedema — Your legs and ankles may become swollen and puffy, making it uncomfortable to move or walk.
  • Numbness or tingling sensations — You might feel a loss of sensation or a ‘pins-and-needles’ sensation in your legs.
  • Muscle cramps or spasms — Sudden and involuntary muscle contractions can occur, causing sharp pains and temporary immobility. 

It's essential to pay attention to these signs and take appropriate measures to promote better leg circulation during your flight. 

Exercises to improve blood circulation in your legs on a plane

We've put together 10 exercises for you to try out on your next flight. You could do them in a sequence every hour or so, depending on your flight length. This will really get the blood flowing and help you enjoy a more comfortable flight!

But remember, you may need to adjust these movements according to the available space on the plane and the status of the seat belt sign.

1. Regular walks 

Get up and take a stroll down the aisle whenever you can during the flight once the seat belt sign is off — especially on long-haul flights. Walking helps get your blood flowing, preventing it from pooling in your legs and reducing the risk of swelling and discomfort. Plus, it's a great excuse to stretch your legs and break the monotony of sitting for long periods of time!

2. Ankle rotations 

While seated, lift your feet off the ground and rotate your ankles in circular motions in the same direction, five times one way and the same the other way. Repeat this motion three times.

This exercise helps to stimulate blood flow in your lower legs and feet, preventing stiffness and promoting circulation. 

3. Fast feet

Lift your heels off the floor so you're on the balls of your feet, then quickly alternate between tapping your heels up and down, like you're running on the spot. Do this for 10 seconds before resting for 5 seconds and repeating 10 times. 

This rapid movement helps to activate your calf muscles and pump blood back up towards your heart, giving your circulation a boost.

4. Calf raises

While seated, raise your heels off the floor as high as possible, then lower them back down. Repeat this movement several times. 

As you raise your heels off the floor, the calf muscles contract, squeezing the veins and promoting blood flow. When you lower your heels back down, blood returns to the legs, refreshing the circulation and helping to relieve any aches or numbness. 

5. Leg extensions 

Leg extensions are a simple move that can prevent annoying stiffness in your legs, particularly when you’re on a flight. 

Here's what to do: extend one leg out in front of you and flex your foot, then bring it back down. Repeat with the other leg and keep going back and forth a few times. 

6. Knee hugs

Sit upright and bring one knee towards your chest, hugging it with your arms. Hold for a few seconds, then release and switch to the other leg. Repeat this five times. 

This exercise stretches your hip muscles and stimulates blood flow through your thighs, helping to relieve any built-up tension.

7. Glute clenches 

Squeeze your glutes tightly and hold for a few seconds before releasing. Repeat this exercise intermittently throughout your flight to engage your glute muscles and improve blood circulation in your lower body. It's a discreet exercise you can do without drawing too much attention from the seat next to you!

8. Hip circles 

To do seated hip circles, lift one knee and start making circular motions with your hip joint. Move your knee forward, to the side, back, and then to the other side, as if you’re drawing circles. Perform the circles in a smooth and controlled manner, feeling the gentle stretch and movement in your hip area. After a few rotations in one direction, reverse the movement and go in the opposite direction.

When you perform this exercise, you activate the hip joint muscles, including the hip flexors and rotators, enhancing blood circulation in the lower body. 

9. A full body roll down 

This exercise is great if you have a chance to stand up and find a bit of space. It stretches your entire back and promotes circulation throughout your whole body, including your legs.

Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart. Exhale as you slowly roll your body forward, starting with your head and neck, and continue to roll down through your spine, reaching towards the floor with your fingertips. Hold for a few seconds before inhaling deeply and gradually coming back up. 

10. Seated forward bend 

Standing up on a plane isn't always possible, so if you can't do the full-body roll exercise, try the seated forward bend. Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor, then hinge forward from your hips and reach towards your toes, as far as comfortably possible. Slowly roll back up and repeat a few times. 

This exercise is excellent for stretching your hamstrings and encouraging blood flow in your legs. 

Tips for improving blood circulation on a plane

As well as seated exercises, there are other measures you can take to enhance blood circulation during your flight. 

1. Wear compression socks 

Compression socks work wonders on the plane! These socks apply a gentle squeeze to your legs, and according to the NHS, they help maintain blood flow and stop it pooling in the lower legs. 

They do a fantastic job of preventing swelling and reducing discomfort during long flights. So slip on a pair of these comfy socks and let them work their magic, keeping your legs feeling fresh and energised throughout your journey. 

2. Keep hydrated 

Staying hydrated is essential for keeping your blood circulation in top shape, especially during a flight. Air humidity on planes can be low, which can contribute to dehydration. 

By drinking plenty of water, you help maintain proper fluid balance in your body, ensuring well-hydrated blood that flows efficiently through your veins and arteries, promoting better circulation and reducing the risk of blood clots.

Alcohol and caffeine can also add to dehydration, so it may be best to steer clear on your flight, no matter how much of a nervous flyer you might be!

3. Wear loose clothing 

When it comes to dressing for a flight, choose loose and comfortable clothing that won't hinder blood flow. Tight garments, especially around the waist and legs, can restrict circulation and lead to discomfort. By opting for looser attire, you not only ensure better blood flow but also enjoy greater freedom of movement, making it easier to perform your exercises and stay active throughout the journey. 

4. Choose a seat with additional legroom

When you know you struggle with circulation problems on planes, selecting the right seat can make a significant difference. 

Opting for an aisle seat provides more legroom and easy access to the aisle, allowing you to stretch and move around without disturbing other passengers. Some airlines even offer seats with extra legroom!

5. Improve your fitness

A recent study found regular exercise can promote a strong cardiovascular system, which plays a vital role in circulating oxygen-rich blood around the body. Whether you're into HIIT, cycling or yoga, exercise enhances blood flow, reducing the risk of clots.

This increased blood flow can counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting on a plane and help prevent aching, swelling, and other symptoms.

So if you're looking to up your fitness game, discover what our Fitness First gyms have to offer today. Book a visit to experience our facilities at Fitness First for free.

Improve your fitness with Fitness First

Seated exercises on the plane can improve circulation and prevent discomfort, but to further minimise the risk of poor blood flow, it's essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle and engage in regular exercise. 

At Fitness First, we offer a diverse range of fitness classes, personal training sessions, and more. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced fitness enthusiast, we have something for everyone. 

If you're looking for some more inspiration, check out The Inside Track, where our expert personal trainers share the latest fitness and nutrition advice.