Why are long haul trips like airplane rides and bus rides so exhausting, even though all we do is sit?

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Why are long haul trips like airplane rides and bus rides so exhausting, even though all we do is sit?

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Constant motion , dehydrated recirculated air, shot loads of bacteria, forced to sit in uncomfortable positions the whole time. Shotloads of humans around requiring attention and stimulating visual field, and… you had to spend money on all that.

Planes are by far worse though.

In the case of planes, waiting in long lines, boarding the plane, sitting on the tarmac for who knows how long; it’s all a huge pain in the rear.

Airplane rides have a lot of extra happening before and after, even though the ride itself might be fairly relaxing. Bus rides I find exhausting because of how close you sit and the constant motion (and the fact that I get car sick if I read). Train trips however I always find very relaxing. No checking in of luggage, no sitting super close, not so much turning that I can’t read. So if I can pick – long distance train is always preferable.

There is constant stimuli that you are managing. Noise, vibration, motion, holding yourself in an uncomfortable position. These all take a toll.

When I was flying a lot, I started wearing earplugs and it made a huge difference on how I felt after a flight.

One important consideration is the constant body position. Sitting around the house when you’re relaxing, you’ll be shifting positions periodically, leaning forward, leaning back, bearing more weight on your hipbones or your thighs, lifting or crossing or uncrossing your legs, etc.

A long car or plane ride doesn’t give you nearly as much freedom to do that. The sitting position is pretty rigid, and you might be able to lean the seat further back or more upright, but that’s typically about all the freedom you get. Add to this the fact that you’re actively balancing even as you sit, if there is any wobbling, bumpiness or G-forces on the ride. You can’t fully relax in a car because muscles in your back and abdomen are constantly responding to the little lateral forces produced by handling the car. Depending on the size of the plane and the air conditions, the same might be true on a flight.

Finally, the sensory input can be mentally exhausting. Highway driving is noisy, and can expose you to pretty fast-moving visual scenery which, even if you’re not really paying attention to it, your brain might be noticing and spending some energy on. Planes in flight are also very loud places to be. That can wear you down and push you toward mental fatigue.

I believe it’s a mixture of the work our brain has to do (navigate unknown environments in a certain time) and the stress of being in close quarters with strangers for hours (you might not notice, but you will be much more alert).

While it is not necessary physically exhausting, it also isn’t mentally relaxing. There is constant low level stimulation above a level that would allow you to relax. You have plans to keep in mind, other people to constantly be aware of, etc etc. The whole situation, while not necessarily *un*familiar, is hardly like being plonked down in your house. Your brain does a surprisingly large amount of extra subconscious work while “out and about” just keeping an eye on everything that could change. For 20 minutes this can be recovered from almost without noticing, for 7 hours though? Well that starts to wear you down.

Why are buses so exhausting? Buses are uniquely hellish thanks to two things: the constant vibration, and the rage you feel when the bus pulls off the Interstate into Middletown with 25 minutes of waiting at the station for no good reason. Plus you have that ten minute detour through suburban Middletown before you reach the station, and then you double back to re-experience it on your way out. Yay, you’ve just had 45 minutes added to an already too-long journey. Done just a few times, this kind of thing turns a four-hour trip into a seven-hour trip.

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I don’t really find them exhausting. Maybe because of habit?

For planes specifically, acceleration, vibration (including turbulence), noise, lowered barometric pressure, variations of temperature and humidity. There are a bunch of different forces acting on your body essentially.

The physical effects that flight has on the body are very well documented due to the practice of in-flight medicine. In general, the results are a person being sleepy and hungry.

Humans are not designed to do any 1 particular thing for extended periods of time, except light running (best cardio creatures on the planet, or one of the best with training)

I did read somewhere that most commercial planes are only pressurised to mimic a fairly high altitude so if you’re used to living at sea level you might feel more exhausted because you’re not used to the lower-than-usual air pressure. That’s why you can feel particularly zapped after a flight even if you sleep.

A quick Wikipedia search tells me that a 767 is pressurised to 7000 ft which is significantly higher than Denver and SLC and just below Aspen.

Side note, my former company used to have us do driving training every month on the computer. We’ve watched so many videos that make the point of driving is work and physically/mentally exhausting. We have to follow all rules of the company even when driving company vehicle to and from work (I brought company vehicle home with me). So with that all being said, why don’t you pay us for drive time to and from the jobsite? You’re expecting me to follow your rules while even you say that it is “work”. They would also have us work a 12 hour shift then drive over an hour home. Your own driver training says that’s not ok. If you expect me to work 12 hours then my drive time should be part of that shift.

One explanation that I read is that on the busplane your body is exposed to constant vibrations.
Our brain sense them and try to compensate by moving muscles back-and-forth.

This lead to massive strain on muscles over whole body, you kinda do 10+h workout on a planebus and this make you exhausted.

I’ve always slept through long haul trips and arrived at my destination rested and ready to go.

You learn how to adapt when riding Greyhound coast-to-coast.

Pilot here. Moisture and quiet are your friends. Neither are plentiful in planes where the air is dry and the noise is constant. We use noise cancelling headsets and they make a huge difference. Investing in something like the Bose QC35 for consumers can be very smart. Also, drink a bunch of water before you get on the plane, and then drink more throughout the flight. And whatever you do, try to avoid alcohol. It dries you out.

EDIT: Pro tip: bring an empty water bottle with you through security and then fill it up from a water fountain near the gate.

Airplane cabins are very very dry, with typically 4-7% humidity. Even mild dehydration can cause fatigue and lethargy. New composite material airplanes like the 787 have higher humidity in the cabin, around 15%, and you feel much better afterwards.

micro vibrations that you don’t even realize your body is working to compensate for

added stress you aren’t used to

lower air pressure means less oxygen in your blood (flying)

Most of the top comments seem to miss the main answer:

Vibration and jostling for busses and cars, air pressure and some vibration for planes.

You’ll notice this on land if you go from an old or poorly designed car to one with a more comfortable ride. In the air, if you ride on Boeings Dreamliner, which uses better understanding of jet lag and fatigue to be less exhausting, you’ll see it there.

There are other factors, mentioned by others, such as noise, changing sights, unchanging positions, and more. But jostling and air pressure are the biggest.