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Fit to Fly: Why the In-Shape Pilot is a Better Pilot

by Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer

You've just completed another thorough pre-flight and, climbing into the cockpit, say to yourself once again, 'She's fit to fly.'

But, honestly, can you say the same about your body, that under-exercised, overfed and overworked bucket of bolts you unconsciously depend on when calling the shots aloft?

Probably not, if you're like most general aviation pilots. 'After all,' you might argue, 'I won't need to run five miles or lift 200 pounds while flying. So if I don't routinely have seizures, fainting spells, trouble breathing or other serious medical problems, why worry?'

Here's why:

  • Good muscle tone, coordination, flexibility and reflexes are critical for maintaining the fine motor skills that flying demands.
  • The ability to think and respond sharply'that is, to make the right 'go, no go' decisions and other life-or-death judgments'depends a lot on your overall fitness.
  • Physiological processes you take for granted but that play a key supportive role in aviating, such as respiration, circulation, even digestion, work better when you're fit. For example, with less oxygen pumping through your brain because of poor circulation, you're likely to feel dizziness or other high-altitude effects sooner than someone who's in good physical shape.
  • Your body, especially if you perform aerobatics, is better able to withstand positive and negative G forces if it's strong.
  • Perish the thought, but fitness reduces the chance you'll suffer a first-time heart attack, stroke or other calamitous event in the air'or on the ground.
  • Staying in shapes boosts the likelihood you'll be aviating competently'and enjoying it more!'at age  70, 80 or beyond.

Does this mean you should train like a marathon runner would? Not at all.

However, an absolute minimum, according to Glenn R. Stoutt, MD, a senior aviation medical examiner in Louisville, Ky., is 20 to 30 minutes a day of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise three to four times a week. A 30- to 40-minute workout daily, along with strength training using weights, is even better.

As Stoutt likes to say, 'If exercise isn't fun, it won't get done.' So, in addition to a healthier diet, choose activities you like, be they jogging, hiking, bicycling, swimming, rowing, StairMaster, treadmill, or brisk walks around the airport alone or with a friend or the dog.

More importantly, advises Donald Anders Talleur, an assistant chief flight instructor at the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation, don't fly if, on any given day, you sense that poor fitness has finally caught up with you.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif. 

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.