Most people travel only occasionally and when they do they see their trip as their vacation, their entitlement to sit back, relax, have a beer (or three), and not set foot in a gym until the plane touches down back in their hometown. This mentality is great, if your trip is ending after a couple of weeks and then you’ll get back to taking care of your body in your own time zone. However, if you are a long-term traveler you quickly realize that the partying every day and the exercise avoidance starts to add up. Luckily, it’s not that hard to stay fit while traveling, it is all about setting reasonable expectations and shifting your mind set from the vacation mode to the traveling mode.
I have done many different types of traveling throughout the years, from the fully committed vacation mode to the long term living abroad, and while it is harder to keep up a healthy lifestyle during some types of traveling it is always possible. I have found that it gets hardest to keep up an exercise routine when you are traveling quickly, less than 3-5 days in a city, or when you are too set in your routine. Through traveling I learned that I had to embrace the idea of getting in exercise whenever and however I could, because sometimes what I planned for that time just wasn’t going to be possible; for example, when I had planned to use my 6 months living in Quetzaltenango to train for a marathon only to find smog filled streets with dangerous at best sidewalks (if there were any sidewalks at all). This is where reasonable expectations and the ability to shift your expectations is vital. I kept up my running the best I could by moving it inside to a treadmill or to the track at the sports complex, but I had to shift my exercise goals. I put off the marathon training for another year with better running conditions and focused on my strength training/general fitness inside a lovely, smog-free gym away from the craziness of the Guatemalan streets.
So after one realizes that during their year gallivanting around the world that they probably shouldn’t try to qualify for the Boston Marathon (unless you are already a super bad ass fast runner who doesn’t need to train like us mere mortals) how does one get out of vacation mode? There are four parts of this shift for me and they revolve around eating, alcohol, alternate forms of exercise, and sleep schedules.
Part 1: Eat like you are still at home
This might sound silly, especially if you (like me) are obsessed with trying the local foods, but don’t worry, eating like you’re still at home doesn’t mean you have to go to Italy and forgo gelato, that is a curse I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I just mean that if you wouldn’t normally have dessert everyday don’t do it while traveling. It’s fun to indulge occasionally, but three months of indulgence might leave you having to buy some new clothes.
Another way to save money and eat healthier in the process is to utilize the hostel kitchen. You don’t eat out every day when you’re at home and you really shouldn’t when you’re traveling long term either. Your wallet and your waistline will thank you if you take the time to locate the local market/grocery store and whip up your own meals a couple times a day. If you are planning to cook, make sure you take this into account and look up accommodation that has a communal kitchen to avoid an unfortunate surprise when you arrive. Hostels in certain areas of the world are more likely than others to have a communal kitchen; for example, I almost always found cooking facilities when traveling through Europe and Central America, but they were much less common in Southeast Asia.
Part 2: Drink sensibly, every night doesn’t have to be a bender
Alcohol is tasty and getting drinks with other travelers is a great way to make new friends, but just as one doesn’t have dessert every night, most don’t have multiple drinks every night as well. It is harder to cut back on the drinking while traveling since the hostel scene really embraces boozing it up, but the longer you are on the road the more it starts to look appealing to see the city you are traveling in before noon. Maybe I’m just getting old and my hangovers suck, but personally I can’t drink multiple nights in a row and be a functional human being.
Also, alcohol is very calorically dense and can be a huge contributor to travel-related weight gain. People don’t often think about it, but you can drink multiple meals worth of calories in a single big night, hence why my bottle-of-wine-a-night habit during my three-month study abroad in Argentina left me 20 lbs heavier in just three short months. Don’t get me wrong I still love a good bottle of wine (these days more reasonably shared with friends) or checking out the local beer scene, but I find that limiting this to a couple of times a week at most makes me a happier, healthier traveler.
Part 3: Look at exercise as an opportunity to explore
First, not all exercise has to be in a gym. I know this shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it needs repeating sometimes. There are a million ways to add physical activity to your day and never have to put on a pair of gym clothes. Walk around the city instead of taking public transit. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Go on a hike to explore your city or find a new vantage point. Even just lugging your backpack around for multiple months will start to give you some new arm muscles. You will find that while traveling you do end up walking and simply moving much more than you do back home, this is a good thing! It means that even if the sidewalks are inhibiting your marathon training plans or gyms are non-existent you can keep your body moving.
For a more traditional exercise plan, I found that what works best on the road is the simplest, most flexible plan. Currently, I try to run one day, strength train the next, and take a rest day when my body or my schedule demands it. I find this method works well, as it is largely location independent. When I can, I go to a local gym for my strength days, but when a gym isn’t available body weight exercises in your hostel common room are free and require nothing except your motivation. As a runner, I love using my runs to explore more of a city than is possible just walking. I wouldn’t have found Gamla Stan (the old town) in Stockholm if it weren’t for a very long, meandering exploration run.
Part 4: Sleep is not for when you are dead, sleep is for tomorrow’s hike up a volcano
Getting enough sleep when you are traveling is necessary to keep up any of the aforementioned healthy traveling plans. If you are constantly going out until 4 am, you either sleep until noon and miss all morning activities, or you will try to rally for that early morning volcano hike and crash a couple of days later. Both options don’t leave you wanting to cook your own meal or go on a run, they leave you picking up the closest, greasy hangover food and attempting to hide from the sun. I have a feeling many backpackers will disagree with me on this one, but I value my sleep and find that it is extremely important for my enjoyment of a trip.
There you have it, how I have managed to stay fit while traveling. These are all recommendations from personal experience and as every body is different you may find that certain things that work for me do not work for you, so feel free to forge your own healthy traveling path. My last thought to leave you with is always be kind to yourself, especially while traveling. If you have a big night out or skip a workout the world is not going to end and you are going to be fine, just try to get back on track the best you can without beating yourself up. This post is about maintaining a healthy lifestyle while traveling and being kind to yourself mentally is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. So while we are focusing on caring for our physical bodies, make sure you take time for your mental health as well. Happy healthy traveling!