“I was on a good routine… but then I went travelling and it all went out the window.”– Everyone (including me)
It’s hard to stay fit while travelling short term. There’s so much good food out there. The local gym isn’t right around the corner. Or if it’s in a hotel, it doesn’t have the same gear and classes you’re used to using.
Your routines go out the window because of all the activities. You might not have gear.
And some people think: “who is seriously going to look up a gym while they’re out there in the great beyond?”
But there are those people who like to stay fit. Maybe you just want to not break your routine, or maybe it makes you feel better. This guide is for all those people (like us).
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Why keep fit while travelling?
Firstly, we don’t advocate exercising so you can eat more, or doing guilt exercising because you already ate a lot. It leads to negative associations for both food and physical activity that can hurt you long-term. (Physical activity becomes punishment and food becomes a source of guilt, taking joy from two things that also can feel really good.)
But we keep fit while travelling because it helps us long-term. Staying fit helps us live longer so we can enjoy more things.
There are four parts of general fitness that deteriorate when we don’t take care of them, e.g. while on an extended vacation.
- Heart fitness. This is the ability of your body to maintain a sustained heart rate. It drops like a rock when you stop training it. You’ll be able to run for less time or climb fewer staircases. This is why we feel terrible going to the gym after a short vacation. So if nothing else, work on this.
- Flexibility. People often get lazy with stretching even at home, even though it’s easy to do. Increasing flexibility is hard, but maintaining it takes daily discipline too.
- Strength. This actually decreases the slowest. If you have a solid squat or deadlift one month, if you stay active, chances are you may not decrease by much a month later.
- Muscle definition. Yes, you get flabbier when you travel. With the number of selfies we take for friends and family, we just can’t take that chance!
The general recipe for staying fit while travelling
Here’s what we do. It’s a fairly simple regime. It’s also constantly a work in progress, so forgive us if this changes over time!
It comes in three parts:
- Take care of your diet. Eat better stuff, eat less, and avoid casual snacking. You can still eat local delicacies and street food in moderation.
- Choose active tourism. Look for walks, bike rides, canoeing trips. Or at least mix it up between sedentary activities.
- Use your hotel gym effectively, or even look up a local class. For those who want to do some traditional exercise, there are a lot of ways of doing it while not going overboard.
We’ll look at all this in more detail below.
Take care of your diet
Everyone has different approaches to diet — and a lot of them can work. There are no conclusive studies that say “this is how you should eat” (and if there are, there are counter-studies), because large-scale population studies of diet for long periods of time are just impossible.
Here’s a general “recipe” for eating well while travelling.
The most important thing: eat consciously. It’s easy to order vast quantities of food and then “feel good” when you clear a massive table. Try to eat a small amount and enjoy it, and think really hard about whether we want to eat more.
Choose high-quality food. Eating food with real ingredients just feels better. You can snack on chips from the 7-11, or you can eat a home-style fried food from a farmer’s market. Without getting scientific, something about where you get the food and where you eat it leads to the latter being a more balanced, conscious experience. (It’s also more expensive, which helps).
Focus on eating vegetables. Wherever we travel, we make sure there’s a fridge and that it has some local vegetables in it. If we order food, we make sure it comes with side dishes of vegetables. It’s really easy to forget this when travelling. Meals tend to prioritize delicious carbs like bread and pasta, and then meat, and there are always many variants of sweet treats and
Minimise snacking. It’s tempting to carry around snacks “in case you get hungry”. But if you don’t, you’ll survive. And you’ll be very hungry for your next meal, and appreciate it more.
Drink water. This is that easy, low-hanging fruit that seems to elude even the best of us. It’s a commonly held fallacy that you need to drink a gallon of water a day, and also a fallacy that there is a correlation between water and weight loss. The best reason anyone can come up with, though, is that if you drink water, you’re less likely to want to drink or eat anything else (that necessarily has more energy in it) just because you’re thirsty. So satiate your thirst first, then eat.
Stay active, and opt for active things
Sightseeing in another country is often incidentally active. There’s a lot of walking. Your step counter is going to thank you!
In every place you visit there are often some casually active things you can do that aren’t marathons but which can be really helpful for keeping your body in good form.
Some examples of ways to stay active while travelling are
- Going on bicycle tours. Or just renting a bicycle as your transport around towns or between villages.
- Finding hikes. It’s quite easy to get out into the wilderness in most countries. You might have to get a bus or hire a car to get to the parks, but spending a few hours doing an easy hike is a great way to stay fit while travelling.
- Canoeing or rowing. Like bicycle tours, paddling or even using a paddle boat (so touristy! But so active) uses a lot of energy.
Opt for one of those activities over something sedentary (like eating another meal or watching a show), mixing it up a little, and you’ll increase your activity level a lot.
Use the Hotel/Apartment Gym effectively
Nobody expects you to be doing a hardcore workout while travelling. But it’s really easy to do a little — and if you like, it’s easy to do a lot.
If you have a hotel gym, then use it. Otherwise, you’d be surprised how many gyms offer day passes. Don’t just go walk on the treadmill (you can do walking outside where there’s cool stuff to see in most places anyway).
Here are some ideas for how to casually use a minimal hotel or apartment block gym:
- Do a 15 minute Yoga session or callisthenics/light weights workout following an app (we like Shred), followed by 10 minutes of stretching, and be surprised by how good you feel.
- Do some HIIT sprint cardio. Rather than walk on the treadmill, try doing some intervals, like 30 seconds sprinting followed by 1:30 jogging, five-ten times. Many gyms have rowers, and HIIT work is also great on rowers.
- Do an “EMOM” (every minute on-the-minute) workout of something like push-ups, pull-ups, or air squats. Saying “I’m going to do 20 squats a minute for 10 minutes” can add up to a lot without being as overwhelming as saying “I’m doing 200 squats” (after 50 of which you might get tired).
- Do some endurance cardio. A light run for 20 minutes followed by stretching can leave you feeling really good.
Do a “Drop-in” Session at a Local Gym
Many gyms that offer classes let visitors drop in for a nominal fee (something like $10-20 usually). It might seem like a lot, but that’s because new members can sometimes take a lot of attention — a coach has to get to know you. Sometimes they offer a good weekly rate, too.
The best types of gyms that offer drop-in classes are those that are community gyms, not big chain ones, like Crossfit, Yoga, and other small fitness studios. A Google Maps search will help you find them.
Take some exercise equipment with you
An easy way to stay fit while travelling is bodyweight fitness. You can do it in the park, or in a pinch in your hotel room or apartment’s living room.
But despite how fun (!) burpees are, some exercises really benefit from better equipment. You’re not going pack dumbbells, but there are a few lightweight components that combined with bodyweight, a bit of room, and a dash of creativity, can lead to a good variety of exercises that you can do away from home to stay fit while travelling in a foreign land.
So here’s a little gear to take with you if you want to mix it up a little.
Trainers/running shoes and jump rope
Training shoes work for weight training, running, and even as casual sneakers. Some of our favourites are those marketed towards the “Crossfit” crowd just because they’re high-quality multifaceted shoes. Otherwise, other cross-trainers also work. The main two types are Nike Metcons and Reebok Nanos.
Both of these shoes are similar (try them on and see what you like), just different in style. They offer
- A slight heel-toe drop of 4mm (good for weightlifting but also running)
- Strong and resilient build
- Reasonable styling (sometimes)
It’s really up to you whichever fits better.
Heavy Bands — for
light weights training
You can use bands like to use these for squats and deadlifts. Find a broom or some pole and they work really well for both.
For front squats, you get the bands and either hold them in your
For deadlifts, you have to use a broom handle. It’s difficult to get extremely high resistance simulating over a hundred kilograms (220 lb), but it’s easy to get something like 60-100kgs (140-220 lb) of resistance and do slow reps.
The best value resistance bands are the heavy ones from Amazon. These aren’t terribly cheap. In the end, we only use the black and the green.
Suspension Trainer – for bodyweight suspension training
A suspension trainer is like an ultraportable kit of rings that lets you do things like pull-ups, push-ups, ab crunches, and other movements out in the wild.
They’re also good for at home to do things like rows, push-ups, crunches, curls and anything else you can set your mind to.
A generic suspension trainer is much more affordable than a TRX. It might not last years for many thousands of clients (like the TRX in a gym), but it’s great for one person for travel.
Leather jump rope – for cardio on the go
The final core piece of gear is a leather jump rope.
These are better than speed ropes because they’re slightly heavier and so provide a much more efficient high-intensity owrk out.
Three minutes with one of these and you’ll be destroyed… or feel like you’re ready to enter the ring against Rocky!
They’re also easier to use for the amateur rope jumper because the heavy rope gives you much more tactile information.
Finally, a leather jump rope they’re much less delicate than a lightweight speed rope, which gets caught up in itself easily, gets shredded on rough surfaces, and has to be just the right length to work best.
Anything else you like using to keep fit while travelling? Tell us what you do.