Is there a reason why we get so tired while travelling?

Image: Roel Hemkes via flickr
Image: Roel Hemkes via flickr

Like you, I’ve always believed that it’s the vibrations that make us tired when we travel. We have finely tuned reflexes to help keep us upright – we’re not really designed for an ever-shifting chair. Our muscles react to every bump and shake to keep a steady posture (the muscles that do this are called the postural muscles and are mostly found around the ‘core’ of the body). These tiny contractions are completely involuntary and are controlled by the most primitive parts of the brain (such as the brainstem). Coupled to this, travelling means holding your body in the same position for a fairly long time – which could ultimately add up to quite a lot of energy and muscle fatigue over prolonged periods.

A simple experiment can prove how your muscles are needed just to stay still: try standing on one leg and not falling over. You will notice that you muscles are continually moving and twitching to keep you upright. This is happening all the time to a lesser degree whether we are stood or sitting in a moving chair. Personally I suffer from a bad back and any form of travel always seems to make it feel worse – so undoubtedly this added muscle strain contributes.

There is also the suggestion that sheer boredom (with the monotony of the journey) contributes to this feeling of fatigue. Getting out of your seat and walking about while on a train or coach can not only ease some of the boredom but can fight symptoms of fatigue: research shows that even gentle exercise has marked improvements in energy levels.

Now, for the more ‘out there’ explanation…

A friend of mine is an animist. She thinks we get tired when travelling because the spirits that animate us can only move at the speeds our bodies naturally move. We get low energy levels because we leave them behind, and feel better when they catch up with us. Of course being spirits, they’re bound to follow geography; so if we fly to New Zealand say, they will take the shortcut through the Earth to track us, before popping up to meet us. Presumably, spirits have quite a low top speed, meaning the further we go, the longer we will need to wait until we feel back to normal. So now you also know the reason for why jetlag lasts so long….

Answer by Lewis Pike and the Guru team


Article by Lewis Pike

November 21, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.

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