From the day of my birth -- having been born in a car! -- I’ve always loved to travel. However, I often used to feel anxious when away from home because I had less control over my eating. Over the years I’ve developed simple ways to stay healthy and fit, no matter where I am. In fact, I haven't gotten sick in years and never gain weight on the road, an important factor for me because I grew up overweight. I recently discovered that many of my strategies, which I hit upon only by trial and error, are evidence-based and supported by research.
While my own travel style consists of campervan road trips in the Western U.S. and international travel, both with my husband of 45 years, the tips that follow can be adapted to most types of travel.
1. Avoid Environments That Offer Unlimited Food
Because my mother was ridiculed as a teenager for being overweight, she wanted to prevent my sisters and me from the same suffering. Unfortunately, she went about it the wrong way, putting me on a diet when I was still a skinny 10-year-old. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that I’m now averse to rules about food and diet. My approach is not to forbid certain foods outright (though I did give up Doritos on a sailing trip!) but rather to avoid them. No cruises for me! That kind of environment is a recipe for failure, and so anxiety-producing I can’t enjoy myself. Same with buffets.
2. Make Unhealthy Snacks Inconvenient
Rather than telling myself “no cookies,” I make getting them a project: I have to get up, find my wallet, leave wherever I am, and go buy them. These extra steps make it much more of a hassle and therefore less likely that I’ll go to the trouble. If I do have unhealthy snacks around, I put them out of sight and reach. According to the National Institutes of Health, making small environmental changes like these helps cut back on overeating.
3. Sample Local Cuisine, But Avoid Addictive Foods
On a trip my husband and I took to Turkey, the restaurant waiters always brought big baskets of delicious fresh-baked bread. By the time the entree arrived 20 minutes later, I was already full. I finally made an exception to my “no rule” rule (ironic!), and said, “No more bread.” Twenty years later, I still avoid bread.
4. Eat “In” Part Of The Time
Restaurant portions the world over have gone the way of the U.S., that is, serving much more than the average person needs. Plus, food can be a huge expense when traveling. One way I help both my waistline and my wallet is to stay in a rental with a kitchen and to prepare at least one meal a day at "home." By cooking some of the time, I feel more in control of portions, save money, and, when we do eat out, appreciate it more than if we did every meal. Besides, it’s fun to go food shopping in unfamiliar stores!
5. Eat Less Meat And More Produce
Research shows that too much meat is harmful to your health. By eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables, I keep my gut healthy, which is particularly important when away from home. Travel is notoriously hard on the digestive system, yet I rarely get constipated.
6. Consistently Move (And Don’t Let Disruptions Prevent Exercising)
Travel is full of disruptions. Whenever my routine has been interrupted, I require of myself only a minimal three reps of any exercise -- three push-ups, three planks, three lunges. After all, anyone can do three, right? (Incidentally, these are bodyweight exercises that require no equipment and that use the body for leverage -- perfect for travel).
I practice the Japanese concept of kaizen: small actions, no matter how puny, to get me over the hump.
7. Go On A Car Diet!
Barry and I always stay in walkable neighborhoods and plan to get around on foot or on bicycle (our own or one of the bikes you can now rent in many cities all over the world). When we explore, we let curiosity guide us. You can find the “walkability score” of most neighborhoods here.
8. Think Movement, Not Exercise
“Exercise” is a modern concept: structured, timed, and often costing money, whereas movement is free and available anywhere and anytime. Movement is part of travel’s DNA because the whole point of going somewhere new and unfamiliar is to wander around and look at things.
9. Aim For Three Different Types Of Movement A Day
Cross-training is really helpful to the body because it means more muscles get toned and strengthened and no one part of the body is strained. It’s easier than it sounds. Say you’re at a beach: You could swim, walk barefoot on the sand, and stretch. Or ride a bike and do yoga and push-ups. Or swing, go on a jog, and lift weights.
10. Use A Pedometer
You can buy a fancy, pricey Fitbit, but a drugstore pedometer costs as little as $15, and, in my case, is just as good a motivator. While 10,000 paces is the recommended goal, on days when I go most places on foot, I easily reach 15,000.
11. Bring Portable Fitness Tools
Happily, the world of fitness has gone small, lightweight, portable, affordable, and convenient -- perfect for people traveling.
Fitness tools are easiest to bring on road trips, but depending on their size and bulk, you could bring some of them on planes, too. Here are the ones Barry and I have taken on trips: an inflatable kayak and paddleboard, folding bikes, collapsible walking poles, a collapsible weighted hula hoop, backpacks, hiking shoes, inline skates, a kettlebell, a frisbee, and resistance bands.
12. Be Opportunistic
Every type of landscape holds all sorts of opportunities for exercise. Maybe you won’t climb a tree at your age (though you might!), but look around for parks, hills, walls, stairs, ramps, inclines, rocks, boulders, and swings.
Speaking of swings, nothing makes me feel like I’m 10 years old again more than swinging. Up, up, and away! According to Carolina Pediatric Therapy, based in North Carolina, swinging improves core muscles and balance. The constant moving of your body as you pump gives you a hearty workout.
13. Practice NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)
This awkward phrase refers to living the way our ancestors did -- before modern conveniences and machines were invented. They stayed active all day long, doing routine tasks like washing the clothes and hanging them on the line, feeding the animals, raising crops, and so on. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic (opens as PDF) found that moving throughout the day is more powerful and effective than say, a half-hour workout at the gym. When traveling, I practice NEAT without thinking about it. I’m out and about off and on throughout the day and doing more things by hand.
I didn’t come up with all these ideas on one trip! Rather, they developed gradually. But I discovered that they all link easily with travel. Of course I want to look at things close up, so I prefer to drive as little as possible. Of course I want to swim in the ocean and walk on the sand. Of course I want to climb the hill to see the sunset, check out the urban park with the blazing fall leaves, and stroll through the old historic neighborhood. Don’t you?
Back when I used to worry about overeating and gaining weight on a trip, I never realized how easy it would be to relax, eat what I wanted, and have a good time. Now I know you really can have your cake and eat it, too. Just put it on the highest shelf so you can’t see it and have to climb up on a chair to reach it!