The fall travel conference season is officially underway. From September through November, industry conferences are happening across the world. Medical, healthcare, and technology conferences attract yours truly—and are a great way to spread new ideas and to spread new knowledge.

And to spread germs and illness.

Here at The Doctor Weighs In, we are covering numerous venues this autumn: the Open MINDS Tech conference, IPS: The Mental Health Services Conference, MedXHealth 2.0’s Fall Conference, TedMed, and American Journal of Managed Care ACO conference to name a few. We’ve covered over 30+ conferences over the last 3 years.

How do we stay fit despite the long hours? Hint: It’s all in the bag.


Backpacks over briefcases

Conference travel involves a lot of walking and waiting. At the airport, security lines within the United States have reportedly increased waits up to 3 hours due to understaffing. We’ve logged nearly 20,000 steps per day walking exhibit floors at conferences, such as this particular week at CES Las Vegas!

Google Fit CalendarAll those steps can shave off calories but can also strain one’s back. Business travelers must haul around papers, electronics, exhibitors’ promotional materials, and clothes.

Thus, consider wearing a backpack. The two-strap backpack is no longer in the domain of schoolchildren and hikers. Professional backpacks—like those from Tumi, eBags, and inCase—can communicate professionalism while saving your back from the strain imposed by one-strap packs. While messenger bags and briefcases have traditionally gotten style points, many of these manufacturers now use finer fabrics, leather or faux leather materials, and metal clasps.

There are even backpacks—called “convertibles”—that convert between messenger and backpack styles. Eagle Creek and Timbuk2 manufacture these along with other professional backpacks, but there are only a handful of styles available. These are particularly popular in Southeast Asia urbanites, but can be imported into the United States.

Timbuk2 convertible backpackWearing a backpack is much safer, too. This past week, there have been near-daily violent outbreaks in the United States. With gun violence encouraging foreign countries to post travel warnings for visitors entering the U.S.—with over 11,200 people killed annually according to the CDC’s 2013 statistics—it’s much safer to run away from deadly situations wearing a single backpack than clutching and juggling briefcases and bags. In populated high-crime areas, it’s also easier for thieves to snatch a one-strap bag or purse than to snatch a two-strap backpack.

If you must use a one-strap messenger, however, consider getting a “cross strap” that can help stabilize the messenger across your back. This can reduce back strain and help further deterioration of back injuries, scoliosis, and spine deformities.


The top 5 things to carry in your bag

As conference-goers, we are ready for anything. Here’s what we keep on hand in our bags to keep us healthy:

  • Hand disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. Shaking hands is good business, but hands are one of the top ways to transmit disease. Use disinfecting wipes and hand alcohol. With this, you can reduce your chances of catching a common cold, influenza, and even methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can complicate medical illnesses.
  • Vitamins. We keep daily vitamins and fish oil in ready supply. Though the popular press and some healthcare professionals may say that such vitamins are no use, physicians do prescribe them for patients.
  • Food and edibles. Conference exhibit hall food tends to err on the unhealthy side, so we keep healthy items—such as fruits, nut bars, and jerky—to combat the dearth of options that afflict so many conferences. Gum is useful for air pressure changes that “pop” ears while aboard subways and airplanes.
  • Medicines, just in case. Headaches, diarrhea, and insomnia can strike at any time (did we mention the dangers of sub-par conference food earlier?). We keep small containers of ibuprofen or naproxen (for headaches), simethicone (for gastric bloating), bismuth subsalicylate (for gastric upset), melatonin (for insomnia and jet lag), diphenhydramine (for insomnia and allergies), and cetirizine or fexofenadine (for daytime allergies) on hand. All of these are available over-the-counter and can be split amongst the members of your party into smaller pocketable containers.
  • Water. Avoid coffee and alcohol while on airplanes as these beverages can dehydrate you. Keep water on hand to stay hydrated. Conference rooms tend to have an ample supply of drinking water. But in between sessions and exhibits, we try to stay hydrated.


And to keep yourself mentally well and sharp

Mental health is as equally important as physical health. Here’s what we also keep handy when traveling:

  • Meditation and mindfulness supplies. Quieting thoughts can boost concentration and lower stress levels. Download guided meditation coaching tracks before your big trip, available free from the University of California, Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center. You can also pre-download relaxing music and soundtracks to carve out some relaxation time for yourself. Google Play Music, for instance, has stations for meditation and new age music.
  • Earplugs and noise-canceling headphones: Long-term exposure to airplane cabin noise can affect hearing and cause tinnitus, which is a constant ringing in the ears. Wearing earplugs or noise-canceling headphones can reduce noise in not only these environments, but also at conference company rock and EDM concerts. This helps with mindfulness as well.
  • Trackers, tech, and apps. Keeping track of sleep can give us an indication as to how well we’d function any given day. So, we use a combination of smartphone fitness apps, goal-setting apps and checklists, and physical trackers to keep our minds on track. We also have used Bluetooth and web-based locators to track each other when we lose each other on the busy exhibit floor!

See you at a conference soon!

Steven Chan, MD, MBA (@StevenChanMD)
Dr. Chan is a Clinical Informatics fellow at UC San Francisco (UCSF)'s Division of Hospital Medicine, serving as editorial boardmember for the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) Mental Health, and develops cutting-edge research in the areas of digital mental health, with applications for cultural psychiatry and underserved minority health. Steve's ideas, thoughts, and research have been featured in JAMA, Healthcare, JMIR (Journal of Medical Internet Research), Wired, PBS, and NPR Ideastream. Steve serves as Vice Chair for the Workgroup on Mental Health & Psychiatric Apps at the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a part of the Committee on Mental Health Information Technology.


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