As the world is slowing down and coming to terms with COVID-19, the aviation industry has been one of the hardest hit industries. Most countries around the world (especially European countries) have imposed strict restrictions and bans on air travel, both domestic and international, forcing carriers to slash their flight schedules by upwards of 90% in many cases. Arising from this, a critical issue is for pilots to maintain their mental health and physical well-being.
The importance of a pilot’s mental health and physical well-being has been highlighted for decades. During these difficult times, managing stress, irregular routine and uncertainty can affect a pilot’s mental and physical well-being. This blog will look at ways pilots can keep mentally and physically fit throughout this difficult period.
Poor physical health leads to an increased risk of developing mental health problems. Similarly, poor mental health can negatively impact on physical health.
What are the mental health benefits of exercise?
Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise can improve your physical health and your physique, trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active.
People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. Exercise gives a person a sense of purpose, goal to aim for and a feel-good sense of achievement. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their day to day lives.
Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energise your spirits and make you feel good. Finally, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression
Ever noticed how your body feels when you’re under stress? Your muscles may be tense, especially in your face, neck, and shoulders, leaving you with back or neck pain, or painful headaches. Pilots – even pilots who are temporarily out of work – need to mind their body and most importantly, listen to it.
What are the physical benefits of exercise?
Exercise is more than just fitness. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you know that exercise should be an essential part of your routine. But the benefits of physical activity go far beyond just physical fitness. Increasingly, more and more research is showing that working out regularly can boost other aspects of your health and physical wellness, including cognitive function and your emotional well-being.
Research is finding that as people age, exercise may be able to help keep our brains healthy and our reactions sharper. This is especially evident amongst more senior pilots or those who have been steadily building up the hours throughout their career. A pilot is required to have a clean bill of health and pass their medical which becomes more regular the older you get – not many jobs/industries require this amount of physical and mental well-being to perform their job.
Pilots are generally described as being objective and structured who generally deal with tasks in a systematic manner. Instead of hour long runs, 20 or 30 minute circuits can be more beneficial and allow pilots greater flexibility – e.g. coping with irregular work patterns, long haul flying, time constraints and all – while being goal-oriented.
The greatest perk about circuits is their adaptability. They can be developed for cardiovascular improvement, strength, mobility, sport specific…virtually anything. They also don’t need a lot of space or time and don’t need to be overly complicated, so even when pilots return to working a busier schedule, they can continue their circuits on the road or at home, at any time.
The biggest takeaway of circuit training is its adaptability as a training system. They can be done anywhere, with or without equipment and can cover a range of specific needs or a full body workout.
Why is a healthy diet so important?
The life of a pilot is full on and it’s often hard to find nutritious, healthy and delicious food when you have limited time until your next flight. If you find yourself skipping meals during the day and having large, fast-food dinners, late at night, you’re not alone. Many pilots who work in such a fast-paced environment have the same eating habits and nutritional concerns. So, how do you break unhealthy eating habits like this?
Healthy eating isn’t about cutting out foods – it’s about eating a wide variety of foods in the right amounts to give your body what it needs. There are no single foods you must eat or menus you need to follow to eat healthily. You just need to make sure you get the right balance of different foods.
Eating small nutritious snacks is a great strategy for a healthy diet. The trick is to eat frequently but in small amounts. Snacks like protein balls or cold-pressed juices are a great snack option – ideal if you are busy playing with the kids, painting the house and small enough to be consumed in the cockpit if you have a quick turn-around between destinations.
As mentioned above, pilots are required to attend a medical assessment on an annual basis until the age of forty, then every six months until the age of 65. A healthy diet can prevent conditions like type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, heart disease and many other conditions which can affect a pilot’s career.
Listen to your body:
Our bodies are one of our best sources of information. It may be a sensation of tightness in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, tension in your neck, a dull ache in your back, fire in your belly. These sensations are there for a reason, and are so very important to tune in to. As a pilot, your life can be a bit chaotic, with irregular or unsocial working hours and high levels of stress.
The human body is a complex and well designed functioning design which is constantly working. Like an aircraft, sometimes you just need to stop, rest and allow time to repair any mild strains, be it viral, physical or mental. In general, individuals require varying quantities of sleep, but how many hours sleep do you need each night to feel refreshed and ready for the next day? If you don’t know, a good start is to set yourself a trial, identifying how much restorative sleep you actually require. This can be accomplished when you don’t need an alarm call and have no time critical commitments – or when you aren’t actively flying as much as you did before COVID-19.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to take a day off from life. The perfect diet, is a balanced diet with a little bit of everything, which includes some chocolate, a take away from your local Chinese or even a glass of wine. Also, a lazy day in front of the TV watching Netflix can be the perfect way to let the body rest and recover while allowing your brain to switch off after a tough week both mentally and physically.
During the height of COVID-19, Simtech Aviation hosted a free webinar aimed at pilots with the European Wellbeing Aviation Committee. The webinar focused on a practical approach for both physical and mental wellbeing during a pilot’s new daily routine. We also looked at what realistic and achievable steps can be taken by pilots to maintain their licences.
If you would like to watch the webinar, simply click here