Staying fit and eating healthy rarely scores high in our priority list when we are traveling. In fact, it’s somewhere between remembering to send a postcard to your grandmother telling how you went to the top of the Eiffel tower and waking up at dawn to listen how birds sing and nature wakes up.
We just don’t do these things very often.
There is one saying, that I heard somewhere, which made me change my mind about healthy lifestyle, though. It goes something like this:
We need to stay fit and healthy to have the energy and ability to do all the cool stuff we travel for
I can say that there are only a few things more frustrating than not being able to do something because your body puts a limit on it.
Have you woken up with less energy than when you went to sleep? Or have you ran out of it during a packed day of exploring?
If so, this post will answer why and what to do to avoid it.
Staying fit while traveling is hard
I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise – I eat a lot.
The problem with that is we tend to try different things while traveling – pizza and ice cream in Italy, fried foods in Asia, burgers in US… It all can get pretty ugly pretty quickly without any structure. Or, you know, exercise at least.
The worst part of it is not that we aren’t motivated or have no time. For burgers sake, we’re on holiday, right? We should have all the time in the world.
The problem is that we are out of our regular “home routine” – people are different, food is different, gym is different (or lack of thereof). Our brain simply can’t recognize and link new setting to our usual habits and puts itself in, sort of, a learning mode – getting new experience, learning about culture and all other things that are associated with travel.
I myself tend to get excited pretty easily and may forget about the motivation to stay fit. This is where habits and routines practiced before save the day.
It’s important to be mentally prepared for this and agree with your brain in advance that yes, it’s nice and fluffy, but staying fit should not be compromised.
Without a goal you can’t score
First thing to prepare is to have a goal in mind. What are you fitness priorities before going traveling? Is it dropping weight to become skinny so that Pacific wind can blow you off? Or getting lots of muscles to challenge the Mr. Olympia title? Or running around like a gazelle without bonking?
In any case, if you have it – good. Stick to it, picture it, visualize you doing something while traveling to get there.
Once you set clear goals and expectations and see yourself actually doing that, you’re more likely to succeed. It’s like with New Years resolutions, before you don’t see the end result you won’t stick to it for long.
It’s only one thing to focus on and motivate you. It’s not that much. If it helps, write it on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet.
Create a routine
The hardest part of staying fit is always the same – getting into the mood and starting. And it doesn’t even matter if it’s at home or while traveling.
“I just don’t feel like exercising now”. Or better, “I feel tired now, maybe I’ll go for a run a bit later”.
Nope. It’s not gonna happen. Not like that, at least. Whenever we’re in the mood of postponing something with no obvious reason – we never return to it.
To avoid these destructive thought try to skip that part altogether. Whenever you fell you need to or it’s time to exercise, just do it. Don’t overthink. Once you start it will become easier.
What I found for myself is that an easy run even after a long day of walking, or even better – a yoga session make me feel much more upbeat. Sometimes I just need to be extra strict with myself to actually do it.
It’s necessary to prepare a travel routine, much like one at home with a gym or some sport. It doesn’t need to be well planned, just enough to make the brain think that nothing has changed.
Charles Duhigg has written a great book on how powerful habits are and how to influence our behavior by changing or altering those. Highly recommended – The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change.
Don’t be afraid to mix up your training
It’s not going to be the same as at home, though.
Most probably you won’t have access to a good gym or the place itself won’t be runner friendly (like in Dubai where it can get as hot as 50 degrees) or the food you’ll be eating won’t be the same as at home and won’t give you the same energy.
If so, make sure you prepare for this in advance and be ready to switch to body-weight exercises instead of barbells or take longer walks and climb stairs if there’s no place to run.
If you know you’re going to travel for a while start preparing early – think of alternatives you can have for your existing workouts and start including those in your routine at home. For instance, you can start including exercises with resistance bands and own body weight and then do those without leaving the hotel room.
Think of a way how to measure if you succeeded. Agree with yourself beforehand exactly how many minutes or kilometers you’ll run in a week and make an effort to complete it. Think of how many reps of exercises you did throughout the week and push yourself to achieve it.
A nice way to measure it would be to have a tracking watch that would track how active you are. There are models that track how many steps you’ve taken throughout the day, how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed and even how many active minutes you had throughout the week. How cool is that? Here’s a link to a cheaper version and the one with GPS.
I found that having a plan and motivation is just the beginning, the real struggle comes next.
How to eat healthy while traveling
Now that we’ve tackled the motivation part, let’s move to the most important and difficult part – food.
Here it’s all about maximizing your energy. The worst place you can possibly find yourself in is having so much to explore, but having no energy because of being too stuffed or too hungry (I been in both of these situations and don’t advise either of those).
As much as 70% of how we look and feel come from food, so it’s important to do it right. Nutrition is always the topic that is overlooked by many mostly due to the amount of information there is. It’s hard enough to eat healthy at home, so while traveling it’s double trouble.
I will write a post on nutrition later on, but here I will discuss 9 main tips that I suggest to follow to stay energized and healthy while on the go.
1. Drink lots of water
I intentionally put this point first, as it’s the biggest mistake people make. Some of us just don’t drink enough water. And that’s not good.
Water is energy. If our body without food is like a car without gas then without water it’s like a car without oil – even worse.
We’ll get both emotional and physical burnout in no time if we don’t drink enough water
Anatomically, energy is produced only in the presence of water. To bore you even more, but get my point across, from process point of view ATP molecule (adenosine triphosphate – energy store of our body, thank you very much) goes into reaction with water molecule in the result producing ADP (adenosine diphosphate) and carbon dioxide that we exhale.
So turns out, we can’t function without water (surprise, surprise), as our body will be unable to produce energy without it. When we don’t drink enough of it we get moody and tired, as we are running low of energy.
It’s important that only clear water counts – tea, coffee and juices are not counted, since they have other things in them (that, ironically, also use water to get digested).
If I would have to pick one advice to give – this would be it. Drink a lot of water and take it with you. The minimum for people is 1.5 liters per day, but when you’re active (which you are while traveling, I hope) it’s 3 liters per day.
It’s such an easy thing to do to stay positive and energetic not only when traveling but also at home as well – drink more to have more energy.
2. Food timing is key
It’s very important when do we consume food, as it affects our energy levels.
For instance, when we wake up in the morning our body is like “hey, the last time I saw food was yesterday, don’t expect me to perform at full power”. After fasting for 8-10 hours, logically, our bodies will not have too much energy to spare.
Which brings me to the importance of breakfasts. I myself try to eat as much as I can during breakfast. First, I’m not always sure when I’ll get lunch and second, I get powered up for the day ahead and don’t feel bad if I eat a cheat meal. Or you know, two.
Actually, many suggest not to eat 2 cheat meals in a row, which technically should help you to stay fit. I say – that sucks. I can’t, possibly, suggest that, as I do it myself from time to time. That would be like hosting a Greenpeace summit in a nuclear power plant.
I suggest to time when you have your cheat meal and don’t eat too much in the evening. Reason is simple – if I eat a dozen of muffins for breakfast I will also have a full day to walk, run and go nuts to burn those calories.
For lunch I suggest you order as much as you can as well – that should be the biggest meal of the day and it should give you enough energy to continue until dinner which shouldn’t be too heavy.
I generally try to either have a smaller dinner or skip it altogether. When you’re stuffed before bed it’s harder to fall asleep and in general the quality of sleep is rather low. And getting up in the morning energized and ready to take on the serious breakfast is all that matters.
3. Match your diet with your travel plans
Are you going skiing or just exploring? Depending on the type of activity you do you need to match your food intake for that.
If you don’t plan any energy-demanding activities, I’d focus more on fats – those will give you steady energy and keep you full for a while.
Make sure you focus on good fats, rich in Omega 3 (this is anti-inflammatory fat that help to keep you healthy and free from cold and stuff). You can find those in salmon, nuts, avocados, etc.
If you plan on being more active, like going skiing or surfing you need to load up more carbohydrates in your diet. Those will ensure you can jump high and run fast.
4. Eat fruits separately
One of mistakes many of us make is that we mix fruits with other food. Or take them as a dessert after a large meal.
Remember that fruits are sugars, and sugars get digested first. So if we eat those right after a proper meal, that proper meal would have to wait for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour before getting digested.
This would mean the food we ate before fruits will “rot” in our stomach causing all sorts of unpleasant feelings.
5. Watch out for plain sugars
Plain sugars (like those in fizzy drinks, Snickers or even McDonalds food) are one of the main reasons why people get out of shape.
In easy words, what happens is that we take that sugar in too large quantities and our body stores extra energy we get from them as fat (yikes).
With fruits, for instance, it’s different. They have a mineral called fiber that makes you feel full faster, so you can’t possibly eat too much calories. That’s why it’s not possible to eat as much fruits and vegetables as chocolate.
Also, fruits contain much more water than plain sugars, so it helps with hydration and energy.
When I traveled to Slovenia once, I bought a kilo of fresh berries at the market for less than a McDonalds set and that lasted me for 3 hours, whereas after fast food I would want to eat almost instantly
6. Don’t overeat
Especially don’t consume too much protein at once.
Spread it out throughout the day and remember that traveling and exploring is already a stress to the body. New time zone, jet lag, different weather – all contribute to the stress you put on the body, so to maximize energy make sure your body spends as less as possible of it on digesting food.
When I travel I try to eat vegetarian meals. Those digest quicker than meat-based ones and you don’t spend that much energy on processing food. Also, it’s much easier to “spoil” meat, so there is a higher likelihood to upset your stomach.
7. Keep a healthy snack always at the ready
There is a high chance you’ll be running out of energy during the day, so get prepared in advance.
Nuts & dried fruits are by far the perfect snack to take with you – it’s both high in value and cheap to have (look for those without added sugars). You can prepare a box of those at home or get a ready-made package at the supermarket.
Also, nuts are very high in calories, so you won’t need much of them – spread those out and don’t eat all at once.
8. Eat something sour if possible
No, sour cream and onion chips don’t count! I know it’s hard to resist the unhealthy food and that’s ok. I do it as well.
When we travel our diet is much different from the one at home and our stomachs are not really used to it. On top of that we try pizzas, fried foods and sometimes lots of cheat meals which can easily upset our tummies.
To avoid bad feelings in your gut make an effort to eat something sour, like a natural yoghurt every now and then – it regulates digestion of all that bad food. Just make sure that yoghurt is not one with added sugar and all possible flavors. Look for bifido bacteria in it – those are the guys that put everything on proper shelves in your body.
9. Cook at home
If you have the option, try to stay in the apartment where you can cook your own meals (airbnb and couchsurfing are best for that). You will have full control over what you eat and you will be able to save money as well – you can both cook your own meals (which would be cheaper as well) and make healthy snacks to take with you.
My parents traveled with me and managed to lose around 5 kilos in just a couple of weeks just by following my regime and that’s without all the running and exercising. You don’t necessarily have to gain holiday weight when you travel.
Here, right after the food part for the best results, of course I’d suggest getting enough sleep to maximize your energy levels, but I don’t dare to suggest it while traveling. It’s up to you what to do with your time abroad.
So we move on
Staying fit is not only about eating healthy, but also about staying active. And, probably, the easiest way to keep fit is to keep moving. As lame as it may sound, but what helps to fight child obesity helps to keep grown up people to look young and healthy.
The best thing is that these are all those cool things that we want to do while traveling. So we might as well do them.
When you’re not fit even a simple afternoon walk through the city can be challenging (especially, if you’re traveling to cities like Luxembourg), not talking about trekking, snowboarding or, you know, climbing volcanoes.
The good thing is that the more you do it, the easier it gets. Our bodies are amazing at adapting to anything. And at some point they will start helping us carry on. The more active you are, the more body will burn energy and with energy go the extra kilos (if you have any), making it easier for you to move and have more energy to spend on doing what you want.
To take it to the next level squeeze in extra activity – walk a couple of stops, don’t take the public transport. Take the stairs instead of an elevator, your quads will thank you later.
Nobody wants to be caught in the gym instead of exploring. Make workout a part of exploring.
Exercise to stay fit while traveling
If you’ve come this far with my advice, I’m pretty sure you’re already quite healthy. This part is for those who want to squeeze in a more targeted activity. Those I’ve mentioned before who wanted to challenge Mr. Olympia title or run like gazelles.
Generally speaking, even for high class athlete it would take no less than 2 weeks before he/she starts to lose fitness. So if you’re going even on a 10 day trip you can call it a taper and enjoy the holiday. If you don’t want to taper, there are ways how you can integrate workouts into your travel plan.
Stretching and yoga
Before carrying on with any exercises it’s important to remember to stretch your whole body after a long day of exploring.
That backpack can weight on you and pinch your shoulders forward. Your legs get tired from all the walking, which transfers some load on your back and make it hurt.
That being said, sometimes yoga can be the best exercise you can do for the day (after you’ve covered the distance turtles don’t cover in their lifetime). Or make it a first thing you do in the morning – even before breakfast. It’s amazing how peaceful and at the same time energetic you can feel after a yoga session at sunrise. You don’t need a special course, just put a 30-minute sequence from any trainer on YouTube and you’re good to go.
Running is the easiest and most enjoyable way how to sustain and improve your fitness. You can do it almost anywhere in the world and you don’t need much for it – just shoes and some sport clothes. In fact, if you’re running on the beach I suggest you do it like our ancestors did it – barefoot. It’s much better for joints and adds to the exercise.
Just remember not to push yourself too hard. It has to be a workout, not a race. If you just want to get energized, go for a very easy 30-minute run, preferably in the morning. If you want something more intense – try a buildup run when you warm up for 1-2 kilometers, and then start running every kilometer 10-15 seconds faster than the previous and finish with 1 km easy run.
I run as much as possible when I travel. For me it’s much easier to have a run first thing in the morning, preferably right before the sunrise. I enjoy to explore the place while I run, while others sleep.
There are no tourists early in the morning and you can see only locals and get a real feel of the place. Like that time when I saw that amazing sunrise in Barcelona. Also, did you know that the Eiffel tower is dark at night and not all sparkly all the time?
Finally, don’t forget to include some strength training in your schedule. It doesn’t have to be a gym workout (although you can hit the gym if you’d like to), doing some pullups, squats and pushups wherever you can will do just fine.
If there are playgrounds with pull-up sets installed I like to use those after a run for a quick 10-minute full body exercise. Overall, I like to improvise and that’s what I suggest others do as well.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to take resistance bands with you and do some full body exercises with those to target big muscle groups (legs, chest, back and shoulders). Use door handles to fix your resistance bands and do sets of 20-30 repetitions with a slow speed. That will ensure that smaller muscles that stabilize your joints get the needed attention.
I use ones that are longer, so that I can attach those to anything around me (like these).
If that’s not enough for you, I can suggest my personal favorite full body workout which would definitely get those muscles pumped.
The idea behind it is to do all reps in as few sets as possible. Count the number of sets you do these repetitions in and try to do them in fewer sets the next time.
You can complete every exercise before moving on to another one or mix those up. Just make sure you don’t do first sets to exhaustion and leave some room for further set.
- 250x squats
- 100x pushups
- 100x pull-ups*
- 250x bycicle crunches
- 5min plank
*If you don’t have a place where to do pull ups, do them on a hanging tree, or substitute with table pullup. It’s critical you do an exercise for the back, because we tend to crunch our shoulders inwards, get less breath
It will take you around 30 minutes to complete this, but you’ll remember it for a week for sure. Feel free to cut it in half and do twice a week as a short workout.
But above all, don’t make it only about completing sets – that’s just boring. Make it a game. You don’t need to do all your exercises at home. Squeeze in some activity every now and then – after all, these will be the funny memories you’ll take with you from the trip, so make them matter.
Finally, don’t overthink it. After all it’s a holiday and you shouldn’t feel guilty for side-stepping a bit. Take it easy, but be smart about it.
All you need to stay fit is a 4-step attack plan:
- Have a goal in mind
- Drink water and eat healthy
- Stay active
That’s all I do to stay fit while I travel. Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments below what are your principles for staying fit?
Also, if you know someone who would benefit from this information, share it with him/her – I’d be much obliged.