How pilots deal with stress can teach us all something about the importance of self-care.
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Cigna 2017

What’s more deadly for a pilot: high cholesterol or dangerous airspeeds?

All images via iStock.

You probably thought the answer was the latter, right? After all, that sounds right.


But according to an official Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) health information handout provided to pilots, pilots are actually far more likely to die from the complications of high cholesterol, such as a stroke or heart attack, than dangerous airspeeds while flying.

In our minds, pilots seem larger than life, but they need to be just as aware — if not more so — about their health as we do.

Pilots have an incredibly stressful job — after all, it's their responsibility to get everyone on the plane safely to their destination.

And they have to do that while also coping with irregular, around-the-clock schedules, jet lag, and large amounts of time away from home and loved ones.

With all that pressure and responsibility, it is crucial that pilots develop good habits for taking care of their health. Otherwise they can develop some severe health issues that can put them — and everyone on board — at risk.

This means that preventive health care is incredibly important for pilots. So why not ask them to share some health care tips?

All pilots have to pass routine FAA mandated medical requirements where doctors check things like their heart health, blood pressure, vision, and hearing — any of which could ultimately cost pilots their license because issues in these areas could hinder a pilot's ability to do their job or could endanger passengers' safety.

Taking control of their diet, exercise, stress levels, and sleep are the best ways for pilots (and all of us!) to stay healthy.

Check out these helpful tips on preventive care and self-care from some seasoned pilots.

One of the most important things is to make a plan ahead of time for when to eat, sleep, exercise, or even just relax on a trip.

Because their schedules change so often from day to day, one of the only ways pilots can make sure to remember to take care of themselves is to actually schedule everything, says John Scully, a retired pilot who flew for almost 40 years and the father of one of our staff writers. That way, they are always prioritizing health and well-being — even when things get busy.

And while most of our schedules are probably nowhere near as hectic as a pilot's is, making a plan for your day is a great way to make sure you don't forget to schedule some "you time."

If you're always eating on the go, try to opt for something on the healthier side.

While some airlines — depending on the length of the flight — provide crew members with meals, others do not provide any meals at all for the pilots. According to Mike Scully, a first officer with a major U.S.-based airline (and John's son), if they don't eat before they fly (or bring something on the plane), Mike says, all they have are snacks like pretzels or peanuts. And hotel and airport food, while usually available, isn't always the healthiest or most nutritious, but sometimes it's all pilots have time to grab.

"I'll do everything that I can when I am on the go to not eat at a chain restaurant or a hotel," says Mike. And when he has to grab airport food, he tries to get things like salads, sandwiches, or fruit — things that are healthier, easy to carry on the plane, and that taste good eaten cold.

And, he says, when home from a trip, he tries to offset any unhealthy habits. "I personally like to cook. I try, once or twice while I am home, to cook, and when I do, I try to cook healthy."

Remove "avoidable stress" whenever possible.

Because piloting is, by its very nature, stressful, it becomes tremendously important to make other things less so. This means avoiding things that they know will be upsetting when pilots know they have to sleep or take care of themselves before a flight.

"The worst thing that I can do is look at my phone right before I need to go to sleep," says Mike. Upsetting news or unopened emails have the potential of worrying or waking a person in the middle of the night.

Removing "avoidable stress" also means finding ways to avoid easy mistakes and put your mind at ease.  And for that, organization is key.

"I miss routine, so when I’m home or not flying, I like to have routine," Mike explains. "So I try to make sure that even though I am in different countries or different hotels, everything is very standard."

For example, he tries to pack his suitcase in the exact same way for every trip so when he needs something — say, a pair of sunglasses — he knows exactly where to look.  And when he arrives at his hotel room, he tries to unpack the same way every night and repack his bag in the same way so that nothing gets lost. "I don’t want to be losing phone chargers every week at hotels," he says.

And after working, it's important to find a way to relax and exercise.

"Some of my friends, the first thing that they do is plan a time to go to the gym," says Mike. "I carry clothes with me and I go down sometimes, but what I really like to do on the road is walk. If I'm in a safe part of a city, I'll walk, and it's nice to see things and try things, like if I'm in Lima, I'll try Peruvian food and just walk around the city."

A view of the city of Lima, Peru.

For him, walking accomplishes two things at once — exercise and relaxation — so he’s more likely to actually do both. (No excuses!)

Plus as little as 30 minutes spent walking outside has been shown to reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure.

Remember that your loved ones are there to help.

Having a supportive family is also a great stress-reliever because they are there to offer support when you need it.  "A call home always helped me," says John. "And they would generally know that it was best to wait to tell me about the plumbing problem at home — or something else — until after the last leg of the trip."

Of course, most of us are not airline pilots, and we might not have such unpredictable work schedules, but we can all learn something from their self-care routines.

The most important thing — whether you work around the clock, have a sedentary desk job, or just feel a lot of stress in your day-to-day life — is to remember to take time for yourself and your health in all the business.

And while most of us don’t have routine FAA mandated medical requirements to remind us to go to the doctor, it is still important that we schedule a checkup with our doctor so that we know our health numbers — cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), and blood sugar — and so that we can take control of our health before a problem develops.

Because if pilot routines show us anything, it's that caring for your health and your well-being isn't selfish: It's crucial if you want to be able to be there for those who are depending on you.

Learn more about how to take control of your health at Cigna.com/TakeControl.

This was written by staff writer Simone Scully and the pilots featured are her father and brother.

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I got married and started working in my early 20s, and for more than two decades I always had employer-provided health insurance. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka "Obamacare")was passed, I didn't give it a whole lot of thought. I was glad it helped others, but I just assumed my husband or I would always be employed and wouldn't need it.

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The process of getting our ACA healthcare plan set up was a nightmare, but I'm so very thankful for it.

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